Are the Tokyo Olympics really going to happen?


Last March, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed and since then, the speculation has been endless.

In January, there was a rumor that the International Olympic Committee would be canceling the Games outright. Earlier that month, two surveys revealed that more than 80% of the Japanese citizens surveyed believed the Games would not go on — or should not.

So, can the Olympics actually happen this summer?

While we can’t know for sure, here’s what we do know so far:

OK, so when are the Tokyo Olympics supposed to start and who’s going to be there?

Great question. The opening ceremonies are supposed to take place on July 23. More than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries are expected to descend on Tokyo for the Games, with another additional 4,000 for the Paralympics, as well as thousands of officials, support staff, coaches and members of the media.

That’s a lot of people coming to Japan in the middle of a pandemic. What is the plan to do this safely?

The IOC and Tokyo organizers released a 33-page “playbook” last week that tried to provide some insight. In addition to the common-sense advice of masking up, avoiding crowds and washing hands frequently, the heavily illustrated document laid out some specifics about what athletes and other attendees would have to do ahead of their arrival in Tokyo, as well as during their first 14 days on the ground.

Travelers will have to produce a negative test within 72 hours of departure and then test negative upon arrival. They will not have to quarantine, but aren’t allowed to go to restaurants, bars, stores, tourist destinations or ride public transportation during their first 14 days. They may not attend Olympic events in which they aren’t participating.

All travelers must submit a detailed itinerary — including the names of anyone they will be in close contact with, such as teammates — to Japanese authorities. They must input details of their health and any symptoms they are experiencing into a mandatory mobile app. Athletes are discouraged from chanting or singing while cheering for others, but are encouraged to clap.

Anyone who breaks these rules with “repeated or serious failures to comply” could be sent home. While many of the specifics were vague in the document, a second edition of the playbook with more details is expected to be released in April.

Will vaccines be required?

In perhaps one of the more notable revelations, the IOC is encouraging athletes to get the vaccine if it is available to them and not at the expense of more vulnerable members of the local population, but it is not mandatory for participation.

Japan isn’t slated to begin vaccinations for its citizens until the end of this month, so it’s likely a large number in the country will not have received their dosage by the start of the Games.

This may be cause for concern. During an interview with ESPN before the release of the playbook, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University, believed one of the best courses of action the IOC could take to safely stage the Games would be a vaccination requirement.

“Letting in a huge influx of people, many from countries with out-of-control coronavirus transmission, is in fact a threat to the public health of the Japanese people,” she said. “I don’t think it would be ethically problematic to require everyone to be vaccinated — it’s a public health issue and it is a private event. It might be challenging, as the access and availability varies from country to country, and it would have to be done with enough time for athletes to potentially receive both doses, but that might be the safest option for Japan.”

What will the Olympic competition actually look like for athletes?

Picture this: You’ve trained for most of your life to perhaps have the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games in water polo. You know fame and fortune likely doesn’t await you, but it’s something you’ve wanted since you first watched [insert age-appropriate Olympic legend here] and now you’ve made it.

It’s the very first day of competition. After you have your daily COVID test and have answered general health questions on a mobile app, you head to the pool. As you make your way to the designated transportation — wearing a mask, of course — you try to maintain a 2-meter distance from all those you pass by, even keeping distance from your teammates as much as possible.

As you walk into the venue, you are greeted by an official who checks your temperature to ensure it’s under 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. (If you record above this level twice in a row you will be taken to an isolation area and barred from the arena.) After you’ve been cleared and warm up, you walk out to the pool and under the bright lights for your Olympic moment and hear, well, not much. Maybe the echoes of golf claps from the smattering of people inside the building.

While this is hypothetical, and a lot remains unknown, one thing seems certain: If held, these Olympic Games will be unlike any others in recent memory and the above scenario could very much be reality.

Athletes will likely undergo regular testing and mandatory temperature checks throughout the duration of their stay, and would have further restrictions if a close contact were to test positive. What exactly that means is unclear, and there has been no guidance as to what might occur if, for example, a member of said water polo team were to have the virus. What would happen to his or her teammates?

Will fans be allowed?

There still hasn’t been an official word on spectators, but Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said last month a decision would be made “in the spring.” During a news conference at the end of January, organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said they were considering several possibilities.

“Naturally, we are looking into many different scenarios, so no spectators is one of the options,” he said. “We don’t want to hold the Games without spectators, but in terms of simulations we are covering all the options.”

What about the Olympic Village?

Ahh, the Olympic Village, the cornerstone of the social experience for many athletes and the subject of countless stories and rumors over the years. Unfortunately, that living situation will be markedly different as well. Face masks are required to be worn in all public places and a 2-meter distance must be maintained by athletes. Hugs, handshakes and high-fives have been deemed “unnecessary forms of physical contact” and athletes are encouraged to “avoid the 3Cs: spaces that are closed, crowded or involve close contact.”

While major questions remain about what the specific housing will look like, or if athletes will be able to stay in the Village beyond the duration of their event, it’s clear the debauchery of the past will remain there for now.

Wait, this sounds like a lot of potential restrictions — why is it so important to Japan and the IOC for the Olympics to be held this summer?

Well, first and foremost, money. Hosting the Olympics is a costly affair and Japan has already reportedly spent over $25 billion of mostly public finances.

Believe it or not, even if fans aren’t allowed and athletes are heavily restricted in traveling outside of the grounds, this would still be an incredibly lucrative event. Global broadcast rights (NBC here in the U.S.) make up roughly 73% of income generated from the Games, believed to be $2 billion to $3 billion, and sponsorships make up almost another 20%. Plus, Japan would still get major publicity.

“The government is keen to hold the Olympics for the prestige and to celebrate Japan’s virtues and strengths,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor and director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “It wants to reprise the glory of [the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games] and lift national and global spirits that have plummeted during the pandemic. It also hopes to jolt a moribund economy.”

Kingston also mentioned what he perceived to be recent blunders by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and why the success of the Games are imperative for his political future.

“Suga is already a dead-man walking for his fumbling COVID-19 response and bizarre backing of the ‘Go To Travel’ campaign that subsidized domestic tourism, [but is] now blamed for the third wave [of the virus]. He is serving out [the remainder of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s] term that expires next September and if the Olympics are not held this summer, he is toast.”

All this constant change and uncertainty sounds difficult for athletes, how are they handling this?

There’s no doubt that this has been a tough stretch for athletes around the world. In addition to the postponement of the Games, they’ve seen various trials and other competitions canceled or delayed over the past 11 months, which creates its own set of challenges, says Sean McCann, the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s senior sports psychologist.

“During Olympic years, other competitions function almost as training and are a special kind of intensity that athletes can’t replicate in practice,” McCann said. “A lot of athletes have forgotten things about what it’s like to compete — how they feel emotionally, the way their brain changes, and the stuff that’s normally automatic. … Now that there aren’t that many months left before trials for many sports, they wonder how many chances they will have to practice both the physical and the mental stuff they need at a high-pressure event like the trials.”

And since every country — and even states or regions within countries — has handled pandemic restrictions differently, there hasn’t been a universal experience. Some training facilities closed for varying periods of time. Others never closed at all. The playing field is hardly level at this point, and athletes have had to adjust and be creative — from kayaking in an above-ground pool in the backyard to swimming in a pond full of snapping turtles.

“We do imagery or visualization work to get ready for competition, so we’ve been doing that now for athletes to get those repetitions without actual competitions,” McCann said. “We don’t just visualize the perfect performance, we also say, ‘What do you do if you’ve thrown two javelins, but you fouled both times? So to qualify for the finals, you have to hit a great throw on your last chance. What are you going to do in that situation?’ There’s some pretty good evidence that that mental rep work is very, very useful at teaching athletes how to perform under pressure.”

Some have discussed struggles with motivation throughout the stretch, but for others, it hasn’t been an issue.

“They gave us dates for our games, which I put on my calendar, then went to training accordingly,” Team USA softball pitcher Cat Osterman said last month. “There’s no problem to be motivated for the opportunity of a gold medal.”

How have other international events gone during the pandemic?

There have been a few, including the Australian Open, which officially got underway this week in Melbourne. Australia has done an efficient job in containing the virus, recording just 909 deaths, and has very strict protocols in place. As a result, 72 players were forced to participate in a “hard quarantine” for 14 days after passengers on their respective charter flights tested positive upon arrival. Those players were forced to prepare for the year’s first Grand Slam largely from their hotel room.

Despite all that, the two-week tournament currently is being played, and fans are in attendance. Capped at about 50% of normal capacity, with about 25,000 to 30,000 on-site every day, this marks the first global event with a crowd of this size.

“I think there’s a lot to be learned from this experience for the Olympic Games,” Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said in the weeks leading into the major.

Tiley and his team were in constant communication during their planning phase with Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director, and her organization. Held in New York starting in August, the US Open was one of the first global sporting events to be held during the pandemic.

Allaster said she became convinced the event could take place after consulting regularly with the local, state and federal government, health officials and other sports leagues around the globe. “Everyone was sharing with one another,” Allaster told ESPN.

With a bubble scenario and repeated testing for players, and with no fans in attendance, there were just two positive tests throughout the duration of the Open. While the Olympics presents much bigger challenges, Allaster is optimistic.

“I think the Olympic Games is the US Open and the Australian Open at just obviously a much larger scale, but all of the principles apply,” Allaster said. “The basic logistics and operations — from housing, food service, transportation — is super-sized in comparison, but it can be done. We all know how to do it — they ultimately need to create centralized environments by sport. It won’t be the same Olympics in terms of social gatherings, and the large mass events like the opening and closing ceremonies and the Village, that’s the piece that has to be adapted, but it’s possible.”

I’ve made it all the way to the end — are you telling me the Olympics actually are going to happen this summer?

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the past year, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. But it certainly seems like it at this point. Let’s just go with a tentative yes here for now.



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