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Can IOC and Tokyo 2020 Learn from Comeback Events to Plot Course to Olympics?

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Photo: AFP

By Michael Pavitt |

It was disappointing yet not surprising to see International Olympic Committee (IOC) members line up to support Thomas Bach’s announcement that he would seek re-election as IOC President, yet not muster the same appetite to ask questions about Tokyo 2020.

All manner of questions could be asked of Tokyo 2020.

For a start. Can the Games happen? How will it happen? Should it happen?

These are challenging questions and difficult ones for both the IOC and Tokyo 2020 to answer in truth, with the Games at the mercy of coronavirus.

Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō has said the Organising Committee, the National Government and Metropolitan Government will seek to produce countermeasures to reduce the risk posed by the virus, which has killed more than 600,000 worldwide.

Answers may present themselves over the coming months as to the potential path and format of the Games, with the IOC and Tokyo 2020 surely examining the approaches of other major sporting events as they seek to ensure Olympics and Paralympics can be held.

A couple of months ago the prospect of European club football seasons resuming seemed both irresponsible and impossible given the crisis.

Yet we are currently heading towards the conclusion of weeks of wall-to-wall football coverage from the top leagues in Germany, Spain, England and Italy. The competitions are inching closer to avoiding the nightmare scenario that a cluster of cases would occur and draw their resumption plans to a shuddering halt, albeit with Dynamo Dresden offering an early scare in Germany.

The financial incentive was clear in the decision to resume the leagues due to the broadcast revenues involved, with matches still held in less-than-ideal circumstances regarding both their schedules and the empty feel without spectators.

It seems notable that the cancellation of the French top-flight season has been criticised by some as being too hasty, when it appeared perfectly reasonable under the circumstances at the time.

Should the seasons conclude without disaster many will breathe a sigh of relief, only for organisers to have to begin running the gauntlet again with the new campaigns only a matter of weeks away.

Other sports will take optimism from the potential successful conclusion, albeit one aided by financial investment in regular coronavirus testing.

Tokyo 2020 and the IOC, I suspect, will have been watching on with interest. The will surely be doing so again when the National Basketball Association (NBA) season resumes at Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando at the end of this month.

The NBA has sought to create a bubble at the complex, with 22 teams having been flown in to compete in game under “stringent health and safety protocols” until the conclusion of the NBA Finals at the start of October.

With athletes, staff and members of the media flying in from across the United States, undergoing quarantine periods and testing, before completing the matches, you could make the case that the bubble environment could be a small-scale version of what the IOC and Tokyo 2020 will have to explore next year.

The challenge of the bubble environment was highlighted in cricket this week, ahead of England and the West Indies’ ongoing Test match in a “biosecure” venue. England’s Jofra Archer admitted to breaching protocols by briefly visiting home after the first Test, which potentially could have impacted upcoming series had positive tests followed.

“The potential knock-on effect of this, I don’t think he could have fully understood,” England’s director of cricket Ashley Giles told the BBC. “We made it very clear what the protocols mean, but maybe he didn’t quite understand what the consequences could be.”

With the West Indies forced to undergo a prolonged quarantine period on arrival in Britain before being based at the biosecure venue, there is no doubt that the prolonged measures must be a testing, but necessary, situation for the players.

Perhaps prolonged periods away from home will become the norm for athletes over the coming months, with the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) producing one of the more interesting case studies in the build-up to Tokyo 2020.

The COB on Friday began sending athletes to Portugal, with 200 expected to train in the European nation between July and December as their preparations for the Olympic Games continue.

Boxing, gymnastics, judo, artistic swimming and swimming teams are due to participate in “Mission Europe”, with the athletes set to leave one of the countries impacted worst by the coronavirus pandemic to a more stable situation in Portugal.

I wonder whether this could become an avenue explored by other hard-hit nations or perhaps mandated by the IOC and Tokyo 2020 to help to ease the risk of welcoming athletes to Japan from nations where there is a high risk of transmission. Inviting 206 nations with wildly different coronavirus situations is a gamble as it stands.

Again, essentially having foster countries would be challenging. I imagine there is some financial burden for the COB unless the organisation has manage to broker an agreement with its Portuguese counterparts. Perhaps this could be a show of the “Olympic spirit” the Olympic Movement often eulogises with countries helping each other.

Athletes’ individual situations would also be different as some may have family obligations which could complicate such an endeavour, while a spike in cases in the foster country could be another complication.

Another speculative suggestion is that the IOC could also look to the two-wave system which operated at the Youth Olympics earlier this year, where athletes competing in the events held in the first half of the Games left and were replaced with those participating in competitions in the second half. 

It would reduce the Olympic experience of athletes, clearly, but if it reduced risk and helped the Games to take place, I would imagine it could be pursued.

The IOC and Tokyo 2020 have time to learn from other sporting events and systems, but the countdown is effectively less than one year given that the qualification process will have to resume later this year. A series of cancellations to events, similar to what was experienced earlier this year, could make things very complicated again.

A further question around the Games would centre on whether Tokyo 2020 could be held with a reduced number of spectators, something Bach has described as being “not what we want”.

Bach was correct when he said it was too early to tell about spectators, but with nine million tickets expected to have been sold for the Games it is among the key issues.

All eyes will be on the progress of countries who have begun inviting spectators back into venues, currently with reduced numbers. Taiwan and Japan are among those to have taken the steps in this area, while Britain has announced it is targeting pilot projects in August with a view to fans to return in October.

It will be interesting to see how many people ultimately attend events such as the French Open in the coming months, with the tournament planning to take place with the maximum capacity reduced to 60 per cent.

Should events begin to take place without outbreaks and Olympic organisers can announce persuasive countermeasures, it is possible public confidence might slowly increase from its current low ebb, with the latest Kyodo News poll today suggesting only 23.9 per cent of the Japanese public are in favour of hosting the Games next year.

As IOC Coordination Commission chairman John Coates said earlier this week: “We don’t know what is around the corner. We don’t know what the state of COVID-19 will be in a year’s time, but we need to prepare for it now.”

Many questions remain ahead of next year’s Games, which hopefully will be answered positively in the coming months.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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