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  • Wilson's World: One Year to Tokyo Olympics... Maybe



    One year to go, take two.

    Thomas Bach with fencers at one year to go ceremony in 2019. (IOC)
    A year ago this week, the world was celebrating the one-year countdown to the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were set to open on Friday, July 24, 2020.

    And now, here we are, again marking the year-to-go milestone until the Tokyo Games, now scheduled to start on July 23, 2021.

    The coronavirus pandemic led the IOC and the Japanese government to take the historic decision in March to postpone the Games by one year.

    But will they actually take place in 2021? And, if so, under what conditions? Athlete quarantines? Stadiums with no fans?

    With Covid-19 still raging across parts of the world, notably the United States, the question of whether the Tokyo Games will go ahead next year remains anybody’s guess.

    The fact is, it’s simply too early to tell.

    “The best thing you can do is say, ‘We’re doing everything we can do, and fingers crossed, let’s see if we can pull this off,’” said Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member.

    Yes, all the logistical preparations are on track for the Games. But none of that will matter if the pandemic isn’t contained in time for the Games to be held in safe conditions.

    As IOC President Thomas Bach observed following the IOC’s first ever virtual session last Friday, it’s impossible to forecast at this stage.

    “In many countries you don’t even know what requirements you have tomorrow when you leave your house, or if you can leave your house, or if you have to wear a mask,” he said. “How can you know in detail about the most complex event to organize in the world maybe?”

    Tokyo 2020 Olympic Village (Tokyo 2020)
    One thing does seem certain: there is no way the Games could take place if the global health emergency prevailing today is still the same a year from now.

    Housing 10,500 athletes and 4,000 officials in a single Olympic Village? Fans and media from around the world converging on Tokyo? Spectators queuing up to get into venues?

    Hard to imagine any of those scenarios right now.

    “If the current situation continues we couldn’t” hold the Games, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori told Japanese broadcaster NHK on Wednesday.

    Mori said finding a vaccine against the coronavirus will be crucial to the fate of the Games. There have been some promising signs, with Oxford University researchers reporting this week that early trials with an experimental vaccine triggered an immune response.

    All 42 venues, including Tokyo National Stadium, have been secured for 2021. (Tokyo 2020)
    But it’s still uncertain how soon an effective vaccine can be developed for worldwide use and who will have access to the shots. Some experts believe a vaccine could become available by mid-2021.

    So let’s say that in the first few months of 2021, there is no vaccine and the pandemic has not been brought fully under control. At that point, a decision on the Games will likely have to be made.

    “There will come a time around March when a decision has be a go or no-go,’’ said Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest serving member.

    If the situation improves and the conditions are deemed safe, it still remains to be determined how the Games will look.

    The IOC and Japan organizers have repeatedly said they are planning scaled-back “simplified’’ Games. This apparently involves cutting back on non-essential services, which could include hospitality and the like.

    The Games will not be what we have become used to.

    “I think you have to expect it will be different,” Pound said. “The extent to which is hard to tell. But it would be great for the world if the event somehow occurs. We may need adjustments in terms of numbers of spectators. Without a vaccine there will be a reluctance to travel.”
    The re-election of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike (right) was a positive for Tokyo 2020. (IOC)

    The good news is that all the venues have been secured, including the Olympic Village, and the competition schedule has been confirmed. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a key supporter of the Olympic project, has just been re-elected.

    Still, organizers will need to win over the skeptical Japanese public. A recent poll found that fewer than 24 percent of Japanese residents are in favor of holding the Games next summer in view of the coronavirus pandemic. The country needs to be behind the Games if they are to be successful.

    The number of Covid-19 infections has surpassed 15 million worldwide and claimed more than 617,000 lives. Japan has not been hit as hard as many other countries, with about 1,000 deaths from the virus. But Tokyo has seen a rising number of daily cases in recent weeks, including a high of almost 300 last week.

    The IOC has said “multiple scenarios’’ are being considered for organizing the Games. One option could be holding the event without fans, or with restricted numbers of spectators. But Bach made clear again that he is not in favor of holding competitions behind closed doors.

    “It’s not what we want,” he said. “We would like to see stadia full of enthusiastic fans and to give then all the opportunity to live the Olympic experience and support the athletes. This is what we are working for.”

    IOC doyen Dick Pound says a "go or no-go" decision will need to be made around March 2021. (ATR)
    Pound said, if necessary, the IOC would need to consult with the international federations, national Olympic committees and athletes on the key question: “What’s more important, having a crowd or being able to compete?”

    Whatever happens, all sides agree there is no possibility of postponing the Games again. If the Games can’t take place a year from now, they will be canceled.

    “We have played the postponement card,’’ Pound said. “Now we have only two cards left. Either we can get it done or we can’t.’’

    Under the worst-case scenario, not only would the Tokyo Games be canceled, but the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing – scheduled to begin six months later – would also be called off. That would be a brutal blow to the IOC and create a severe financial crisis for the entire Olympic Movement.

    “It’s a little unsettling,” Pound said. “If Tokyo doesn’t come off, it’s not unlikely that Beijing wouldn’t face the same situation. You could be going a full four years without an Olympic revenue injection.”

    But, for now, all sides are fully intending to celebrate the opening of the Tokyo Games a year from today, envisioning a Games that will deliver a powerful global message of resilience, hope and recovery.

    “These Olympic Games,” Bach said, “can be a unique milestone for the entire world.”

    Only time will tell.
    Stephen Wilson is the former long-time Olympic correspondent and European Sports Editor of The Associated Press and former President of the Olympic Journalists Association. Contact him at

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