Thursday 30 May 2024
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 22, 2021 - February 28, 2021

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t” perhaps best sums up the fate of the organisers of the already-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. You wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of either the Japanese hosts or the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as they grapple with issues well outside the normal sporting remit.

A famous football manager once said that football was more important than life and death — but he was only joking. Staging the biggest sporting extravaganza in the world in the midst of a deadly pandemic is deadly serious.

Get it wrong and you could damage the lives of millions within and beyond your borders. Get it right? Is there a “right” when you are already telling people not to cheer, not to sing, to keep their distance and, in some cases, not to come?

The dos and don’ts of the hosts’ recently published playbook read like the house rules of a dystopian boarding school. However necessary, they are not what the Olympics are about. Of all the great sporting events, this is the least partisan and the most festive, where spectators mingle and cheer excellence — regardless of nationality. They will not be able to do that if the Games are put in a straitjacket.

Already, competitors cannot visit other Games venues or go to bars, restaurants, tourist sites or use public transport. Spectators — if they are allowed — must be tested and maybe quarantined, which amounts to a nuclear deterrent to attending, to the atmosphere, to the Olympic spirit. You get the sense that this much medicine might kill the patient.

The Games Village should be a great melting pot of peoples — from 206 countries — but competitors have to keep at arm’s length. No fraternising with fans, no autographs, no selfies, not much fun. Spectators will be allowed to clap, but if they are masked and muted, the atmosphere will be little better than at football’s ghost matches where huge advertising banners cover the empty seats. At least they have a message and can’t spread the virus.

But no one is giving up yet. Still fresh in the memory is the brilliant job Japan did in hosting the Rugby World Cup in late 2019, which survived a typhoon and was a marvellous festive occasion. The IOC has not forgotten it either, and the joint message is that the Olympics are on until they are off. “Our task is to organise the Games, not cancel them,” insists IOC president Thomas Bach, who adds: “There is no plan B.”

An awful lot is riding on the Games for both parties. Initially meant to kick-start a sluggish economy, it is now hoped a successful Olympics could symbolise mankind’s triumph over the virus. Either reason explains the desperation to cling on. And the IOC is just as determined: for the committee, it is about staying relevant.

The Olympics have lost much of their lustre with white elephants, drugs and a lack of heroes in track and field, in particular. Many traditional sports struggle to appeal to a young audience and the question has to be asked: would they be missed?

Japan will take a massive hit but will recover — it has recovered from far worse, after all — but the Olympics might find it harder to bounce back in an increasingly crowded and cut-throat field.

Still, there are five months to go to the opening ceremony on July 23, by which time much may have changed. The prevailing winter gloom will have been dispelled, lockdowns lifted and millions more vaccinated. As long as there is no deadly new variant, something resembling an Olympic Games may still go on.

After all, sport is going on around the world — even with crowds in some places — but it is an awful lot easier to organise a single-sport event than a carnival for 33 different ones. And the sudden lockdown in the middle of the Australian Open recently was a harsh reminder of how quickly things can change.

In a month’s time, the traditional Olympic torch relay is set to start in Fukushima, the area hardest-hit by the 2011 disaster that took more than 15,000 lives. The torch is already lit — kindled by the rays of the sun in the Games’ traditional home in Olympia last year — and flown to Japan.

Even after the postponement, the flame was kept lit along with the hope that the Games will go on this year, the organisers seeing the torch relay, whose theme is “Hope Lights Our Way”, as symbolising light at the end of this dark tunnel. That symbolism, though, may be too close for comfort as hopes are flickering at best.

Declaring a state of emergency in early January was not how Japan wanted to start the year. But there was an alarming spike in cases in Tokyo which, coupled with costs spiralling to over US$15 billion, was why polls showed 80% of the people were against staging the Games, a year after they were 90% in favour. A situation hardly likely to encourage spectators or volunteers.

Indeed, the prospect of some 20,000 athletes, officials, coaches and reporters flocking to both Olympics and Paralympics has filled the world’s largest city with understandable dread, especially when track-and-trace problems and delays with vaccinations have not been the slick crisis management the country had come to expect.

And with the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga slumping in popularity, political commentators have suggested the determination to cling on is partly politically motivated as any further delay would be seen as a defeat.

However, this month’s resignation of Tokyo organising committee chief Mori Yoshiro, 83, for saying “women talked too much at meetings” may have been a blessing. Surely, his insistence that “we will hold the Games regardless of how the coronavirus [situation] looks” was the real hanging offence. Regardless?

Neither the IOC nor any government would be that irresponsible. To be fair, last year’s decision to cancel was easy in comparison as most of the planet was locked down and there was no vaccine. This year, the hope is that the vaccines can make the difference. But everyone needs a few months’ preparation time and guarantees are impossible to give.

It boils down to four options: to go ahead with fans, without fans, postpone or cancel altogether. Such is the sense that they are between a rock and a hard place that IOC vice-president Kevin Gosper has suggested the United Nations should decide. But if it does go ahead this year, it will be a diminished affair — with or without fans.

At a pinch, it could be held next year, even if it will struggle for broadcasting and sponsorship cash already allocated for the 2022 World Cup, not to mention hotel bookings. Indeed, the one option that the IOC refuses to countenance is perhaps the only sensible way out: postponement.

With the World Cup coming at the end of the year, 2022 is not as crowded as 2021. And it would still mean two years before the next Games in Paris in 2024. But, most important of all, by then, there would be a better chance of the world being in a fit enough state to stage an Olympics worthy of the name.

Bob Holmes is a long-time sports writer specialising in football

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