The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to open in 100 days on July 23. But instead of a global spectacle, these Games will be all about restrictions and protocols to protect the health and safety of athletes and those around them.
With 100 days until the world’s biggest sporting event, questions about whether it will actually happen appear resolved.
But this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, like everything else in the era of COVID-19, will be different from anything we have seen before.
“Although COVID-19 continues to infect people all around the world, our confidence grows around Tokyo 2020 and the ability for those Games to be staged safely and successfully,” said Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker. The Games are scheduled to open July 23, with the Paralympics to begin on Aug. 24.
Shoemaker said these Games won’t be the “packed jubilant” spectacle often associated with the Olympics. Rather, the Tokyo Games will be all about the health and safety of athletes, who won’t be required to quarantine or be vaccinated to compete.
Athletes will have to adhere to a lengthy list of safety protocols issued by the International Olympic Committee, such as departing the Games 48 hours after competition and not visiting any non-Olympic sites, including bars and restaurants. Also, no international fans will be allowed to attend.
“They’ll be a different Olympics, but certainly preferable to them not happening all,” long-time Canadian IOC member Richard Pound said.
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It’s been just over a year since Tokyo organizers and the IOC decided on postponing the Olympics until this summer. Though little was known about the rapidly expanding coronavirus, it was obvious that bringing athletes from different countries together was imprudent.
And while people around the world are slowly being vaccinated, many countries, including Canada, are still in various forms of shutdown as governments grapple with new variants of the deadly virus.
Compared to most other countries, Japan has been relatively successful combating COVID-19, logging about a half million cases and more than 9,000 deaths as of April 15. By comparison, Canada, with about 100 million fewer people, has seen about a million cases and more than 23,000 deaths.
What has changed?
So a year later, with COVID-19 still surging, what has changed to make the Olympics now possible?
“We know so much more about the virus itself and about how it circulates. We know so much more about what measures we can take to protect against it,” Shoemaker said. “That’s fundamentally why we believe that we can now bring Team Canada safely and securely to Tokyo 2020 in the summer of ’21 and do so successfully.”
Olympic officials have also had a year to observe how other international events have navigated the pandemic, some more successfully than others.
“I think COVID will be lived with. It’s not it’s not going to be overcome by the end of July or early August of this year, but we know more about it,” Pound said.
“I would say that we were looking at probably the best ever organized Games in history.”
I think COVID will be lived with. It’s not it’s not going to be overcome by the end of July or early August of this year, but we know more about it.– IOC member Dick Pound
At the same time, he is aware things could quickly devolve.
“There’s a certain element of fingers crossed that there’s not some overwhelming surge of the COVID virus that puts the whole thing at risk,” Pound said. “But I think that risk has been very successfully managed and I think we’re going to have, against a lot of odds, a very successful Games.”
Getting to a point where the starting line is finally in sight has been a monumental challenge for everyone involved. And there are still many hurdles ahead.
Absence of routine and certainty
Organizers, athletes and coaches thrive on routine and certainty, both which have been absent this Olympic year.
“Everybody wants certainty. And that’s just not the reality that we’re in right now. We’re in an environment that can change at a moment’s notice,” said James Cartwright, a high performance manager for Canoe Kayak Canada. “It’s challenging, and it’s certainly not the Olympics that anyone would have wished to have.”
With protocols and rules constantly in flux, athletes have spent the last year criss-crossing the globe to find spaces and facilities where they are allowed to train and compete. COVID-19 has also caused massive disruptions in the global sports calendar, leaving Canadian officials scrambling to find suitable events for athletes to qualify for a spot on the Olympic team.
In Canada, about three-quarters of the 35 sport organizations that will compete in Tokyo have yet to finalize their teams.
Take, for example the final spot on Canada’s whitewater paddling team. There are currently two female paddlers in the running but the problem has been finding an event for them to compete in. Officials had originally planned to use the Pan Am Championships in Brazil, which was slated to run in the first week of May, until it was cancelled. They then looked to two World Cup events slated for the Czech Republic and Germany. Now, because of rising COVID-19 numbers in both countries, those events could be in doubt.
Canada’s track and field team is facing a similar dilemma. Under a new qualifying system, about two-thirds of the team will qualify for Tokyo through entry standards. The rest of the team will qualify based on world rankings, which requires athletes to travel to events in order to gain much-needed points.
Not all qualifying events will be possible
The COC acknowledges that not all qualifying events leading up to Tokyo may be possible and that other qualifying mechanisms may leave some athletes feeling slighted.
You could have some people who have inadvertently benefited from that environment and then others who would become the victim of that situation.– David Shoemaker, CEO of Canadian Olympic Committee
But for some athletes, the arduous process of qualifying may be the easiest part of their Olympic experience.
“The teams that will do the best, the countries that will do the best and the individual athletes who will do the best are the ones who are the most flexible and have the most mental resilience,” said Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada’s high performance director.
Beside a lengthy list of health protocols, athletes will also have to adjust to the huge time zone change and to what could be one of the the hottest Games ever. July temperatures in Japan could reach as high as 32 C.
They will be required to wear masks at all times except during competitions. They will be tested every four days and have their temperature checked every time they enter an Olympic venue.
Even so, positive tests are considered inevitable, meaning athletes and possibly those connected to them will be sent home without achieving their Olympic dreams.
That’s why these Tokyo Games will be different — it’s not so much about medal counts and personal best but about getting to the finish line safely.
“I think part of Tokyo will be how we define victory,” Shoemaker said. “Perhaps this next chapter is going to be about how we come to Tokyo preparing ourselves for this virus, how we use the games themselves as a beacon of hope.”