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Tokyo 2020: Uncertainty and murmurs of cancellation abound

STEPHEN WADE addresses some lingering questions on the viability of the Olympic Games

THE Tokyo Olympics are to open in six months on July 23 and organisers have no public programme planned to mark the milestone. There is too much uncertainty for that right now.

Tokyo and other parts of Japan are under an emergency order because of surging coronavirus cases with about 4,500 deaths attributed to Covid-19.

Instead of a countdown celebration, the focus is on the virus and speculation around the Olympics being cancelled.

Should they take place during a spreading pandemic — vaccine or no vaccine? Organisers say they will, with exact details yet to be revealed.

It's been this way since the Olympics were postponed almost 10 months ago. There are always more questions than answers.

When will a final decision be announced about holding the Olympics?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and local organisers are adamant they will happen.
Mark the date: March 25. That's when the torch relay, heavily sponsored by Coca-Cola and Toyota, begins from northern Japan, criss-crossing the country for four months with 10,000 runners headed to Tokyo.

It’s hard to imagine the relay going ahead but the Olympics being cancelled. Remember, it was in late March last year that the Olympics were postponed.

Recent polls show 80 per cent in Japan want the Olympics cancelled or postponed. So why is Japan and the IOC pushing ahead?

A key is the billions already sunk into the event, and the income Tokyo will generate for the IOC.

The IOC gets almost three quarters of its income from selling TV rights. Another 18 per cent is from sponsors. Unlike other sports businesses, the IOC has only two major events every four years to rely on.

Only five Olympics have ever been cancelled, all during wartime: the 1916, 1940 and 1944 summer games, and winter games in 1940 and 1944. But that was before big money was involved.

Japan must also save face. It has spent at least $25 billion (£18.3bn) preparing for the Olympics. In addition, China will host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Japan would hate to cede the stage to China.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is framing the Olympics as “a proof of human victory against the coronavirus.”

Will these Olympics look different?

Almost certainly. First, athletes will be told to arrive later than usual and leave early. The idea is to keep the athletes’ village sparsely populated. It’s hard to imagine much interaction between athletes, the public and the media.

Fewer athletes than usual are likely to appear in the opening ceremony. Japanese media are reporting only 6,000 will take part. The Olympics involve 11,000 athletes.

However, from the perspective of the television viewer, everything may look similar to previous Olympics. The venues are basically TV stages, and they look the same from one games to the next. Fans are now accustomed to viewing sports events in empty stadiums.

One caveat. Ticket sales account for $800 million (£587m) in income for local organisers. No fans means lost revenue and more costs. Those costs must be absorbed by Japanese government entities.

Several Japanese government audits have estimated Olympic spending at $25bn (£18.3bn) or more. All but $6.7bn (£4.9bn) is public money. Local sponsors have also poured in $3.5bn (£3.5bn). Will they get much “bang for their buck?”

Why all the sceptical comments recently from several insiders, mainly senior IOC member Dick Pound and Japanese minister Taro Kono?

Pound was asked about the Olympics taking place. “I can’t be certain because the ongoing elephant in the room would be the surges in the virus.”

He also suggested athletes should be a high priority for a vaccine because they serve as “role models.” That contradicted IOC president Thomas Bach, who has said athletes should not be a priority.

Kono, a member of Suga’s cabinet, acknowledged in an interview that the Olympics are in doubt. “I should say anything is possible,” he said.Kono is the former defence minister and is now the minister for administrative and regulatory reform. On Monday, he was put in charge of Japan's vaccine programme. “It could go either way,” he added of the Olympics.

Will vaccinations be required?

Not clear. Bach has urged all “participants” to be vaccinated. But he's said athletes will not be required to. But that was the IOC speaking. The Japanese government could override this with different rules for entry and requirements for quarantines.

I see tennis’s Australian Open is having problems. What can the IOC learn there?

About 1,200 players, staff and media have arrived for next month’s Australian Open. All participants were required to return negative Covid-19 tests before boarding flights for Australia.

As of yesterday, nine on those on the flights tested positive when landing in Australia. That has forced 72 players into a 14-day lockdown — since they were exposed on flights — as well as all other passengers on those flights.

The Olympics and Paralympics will involve 15,400 athletes. And tens of thousands of staff, officials, judges, media and broadcasters. And dozens of venues. Athletes are sure to be affected, jeopardising years of training and, for most, their only shot at a medal.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said his experiences can teach Japan and the IOC how to deal with problems and setbacks.

“I think there’s a lot to be learned from this experience for the Olympic Games,” Tiley said. “Every single day we become better at it because we’ve learned from what happened yesterday — the mistakes you make.”

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