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How the Messaging on Tokyo 2020 is Set to Change

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Photo: PAWEL KOPCZYNSK/REUTERS

By Liam Morgan |

If officials involved in the organization of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are to be believed, there will be a considerable shift in communications from next week.

That is when the first edition of a series of “playbooks”, designed to outline how the Games can be held safely during the pandemic and which includes elements such as testing, quarantine measures and forming “bubbles”, is due to be published.

One of the main aims of the playbooks is to “clearly communicate the planned countermeasures to key stakeholder groups in order to build confidence around the breadth of activity taking place to deliver a safe Games”, according to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) document.

Or, as the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) chief marketing and communications officer Craig Spence puts it, there will be a shift in messaging from “this will happen” to “how it will happen”.

This will come as a relief to athletes and others involved in the Games, who have been critical of IOC President Thomas Bach for his adamant insistence that there is “no reason whatsoever” to think Tokyo 2020 will not open as planned on July 23 and that there is “no plan B”.

Athletes are right to be sceptical when Bach proffers such a view as we have been here before. The same rhetoric was being trotted out of IOC headquarters just three weeks before Tokyo 2020 was postponed to 2021 in March of last year.

This time, Bach and the IOC think they have evidence to justify their claims. We just haven’t seen it yet.

Bach’s comments came at a time when organisers have revealed barely any details – save for athletes being asked to limit their stay in the Olympic Village during the Games, and the odd soundbite from the usual suspects – about how Tokyo 2020 will be held.

There is usually always a gap, often a chasm, between what the IOC says publicly and what it is doing behind closed doors.

While Spence says the first “playbook” will not be an exhaustive list of the measures which will be implemented at the Games, he believes it will be the first step to addressing these gaps.

“We have not been sitting around doing nothing,” he tells insidethegames. “We have been working our arses off for over a year on this plan, which we think is robust.”

As part of the playbook – likely to join “toolbox” on Bach’s list of favoured phrases in the run-up to the Games – athletes will not be able to get on the plane to Tokyo without a negative test to ease the concerns of the Japanese Government over huge numbers of people arriving in the country while potentially carrying the deadly virus.

Participants are expected to have to undergo a period of quarantine before travelling to Tokyo, and will be subject to frequent testing, including at the airport and at the Village, when they get there.  

Steps are also being taken to mitigate false positives as organisers are keen to ensure an athlete does not miss out on competing because of an incorrect result.

Before all that happens, organisers are pinning their hopes on as many participants as possible being vaccinated for COVID-19 before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics get underway.

“The IOC calls for Olympic and Paralympic teams to be vaccinated given their role as ambassadors of their National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and given the role of sport ‘to promote safe sport as a contributor to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities’, as recently stated in a UN resolution which was adopted by consensus in the UN General Assembly,” the IOC said in a statement this week.

The IOC is also working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to assist NOCs to “encourage and assist their athletes, officials and stakeholders to get vaccinated in their home countries”.

It has also asked them to actively engage with their respective Governments to get a “full picture” on the vaccination situation in their countries before early next month.

Yet these are more general points, and it is the specifics which athletes, coaches and officials have been crying out for.

Plans as complicated as the one being developed for Tokyo 2020 take time, but the delay in getting the details out to what the IOC defines as its “stakeholders” has been the subject of understandable criticism in recent weeks.

It has come at a time where speculation and uncertainty over the Games going ahead has been rife following a story published by British newspaper The Times, which said the Japanese Government had already privately concluded Tokyo 2020 would be cancelled.

The article, based on a single unidentified Government source, came shortly after current and former Olympic officials – respectively IOC doyen Richard Pound and Sir Keith Mills, the deputy chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee – offered opinions that cast doubt on Tokyo 2020 going ahead at all.

To be clear here, neither Pound – who would himself accept he is no longer part of the IOC’s inner sanctum, where the decision-making takes place – nor Sir Keith know if the Games will be held. They were merely giving their personal view, which they are entitled to do.

While Bach and the IOC’s communication has come across as tone-deaf and a touch arrogant, both before the postponement last year and now, he has at least been as certain as can publicly be that the Games will go ahead.

Exactly why he is so confident should become clearer in the next week or so.

The IOC, the IPC and Tokyo 2020 will be hoping the playbook will be enough to negate concerns, cancellation rumours and speculation but it does beg a key question: why could the document, or at least part of it, not have been published earlier?

Yes, it is complex, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but by doing so the IOC and organisers could have reassured its most important stakeholders – the athletes – and put a lid on the reports, which competitors have decried as damaging to their mental health, before they even surfaced.

It could also have helped to prevent the evident decline in public support for the Games in Japan, a vital issue which Spence admitted was a key priority in the coming weeks and months.

“But we are in a much better position than people think,” Spence said. Everyone involved in the Olympic and Paralympic world will be desperately hoping he is right.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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