British Rowing |

Tokyo 2021 – what can we expect?

With the Olympic torch relay set to start on 25 March, we ask three of our senior writers for their thoughts on how the Games might look

Mike Rowbottom, chief feature writer for Inside the Games, has covered seven summer Olympic Games. Read on for his thoughts

The Tokyo 2020 Games will probably go ahead this year – but at what human cost?

In March 2020, the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced after an executive committee meeting that neither the word “cancellation” nor “postponement” had been mentioned with regard to Tokyo 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic continued apace.

A month later the Games were postponed until July 23, 2021. Whether they will indeed start on that date, or any date, is still moot.

But as the spread of vaccinations begins to change the big picture, albeit patchily, it seems ever more likely that what risks remain will be deemed insufficient to prevent Tokyo 2020 and the IOC saving face – and an awful lot of money.

This week the Chinese Olympic Committee offered to give Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 free vaccinations. But would they be uniformly available? And how would they alter the ethical objection voiced by numerous athletes about “jumping the queue”?

A poll in January indicated 80 per cent of Japanese people thought the Games should be postponed or cancelled. And the Japanese elections are due later this year.

But the postponement has already, reportedly, added another $900 million to the Games budget, bringing it to $6.7 billion. Who would want to see that go west?

NBC are due to pay $1.418bn for the US rights to Tokyo 2020. And it is largely upon the IOC’s redistribution of such monies that so many top international sports federations – for athletics, swimming, gymnastics… for rowing – depend.

Insurance. Vexed. Several leading advisers have declared that in current circumstances covering organisers for cancellations has become problematic to the point of impossibility.

Bach meanwhile has insisted: “If we didn’t think the Games could be safe, we would not go for it.”

To enable this, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 are currently putting together protocols for the Games to proceed safely, whether those involved have been vaccinated or not by that point.

But given the unprecedented numbers involved – around 11,000 athletes for starters – what are the odds against a scenario of COVID positives popping up to trigger a succession of quarantine measures? A price worth paying?

Rachel Quarrell is rowing correspondent for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and has been covering the sport for nearly 20 years

This article, had I written it in January, would have been very different: back then instincts suggested that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics might be completely cancelled. But since early February the chances have improved, as a result of TOCOG (the local organising committee) issuing its Stakeholders’ Playbook.

This snazzy document full of cheering icons and with a rowing image on the index page is effectively the COVID 2021 Handbook. TOCOG are now planning not two magically normal events, but two ruthlessly COVID-secure competitions (a big change since last year). Unless there is a massive local surge in COVID cases, the Games should now be afoot, but even if vaccines have by then reduced the pandemic, we will still have to socially distance, wear masks, use compulsory tracking apps and isolate if we test positive. 

No singing, cheering or chanting allowed in venues: demure clapping only

It won’t be much fun for those involved – that includes everyone from athletes to press, volunteers and the very limited numbers of spectators. Participants must completely segregate from the local population, ruling out all sightseeing and tourist fun. We’ll likely be banned from taking public transport or using restaurants outside our hotels: this time the sarcastic jokes about the Olympic bubble really are true.

Mandatory daily temperature and symptom reporting for all participants join detailed GPS tracking of individuals. Oh, and no singing, cheering or chanting allowed in venues: demure clapping only. Fortunately, quarantining post-flights will not be necessary, but all press, athletes, officials and volunteers must submit a very detailed activity plan for their first 14 days, so that if any of their tests are positive, they can quickly be found and sent into isolation. Whereabouts will have nothing on this level of surveillance and tracking. Welcome to the brave new Olympic world…

We’ll be in uncharted, unpredictable territory with Olympic finals anyone might win

So, the good news is that rowers around the world should be racing for medals. On the downside, many teams have been hard hit by the pandemic. For the last nine months many nations have suffered long lockdown periods without access to water training, and no way to go abroad to find it. Others can water-train, but only in small boats rather than large crews. Those countries who only select big crews very late may have a slight edge since they are used to rapid crew bonding and development, but the singles competition could be fantastic especially for those able to practise beforehand in rough water.

Contrasting that are largely unaffected nations like New Zealand and Australia whose lockdowns have been short and sharp. Sounds good but they face other pitfalls as they are unlikely to be able to attend international warm-up events in May and June to check their speed.

Even with the World Cup regattas going ahead, there’s a question over how many can attend and from which countries will magnify the inequalities and teams able to travel to mainland Europe will have the most opportunities with race time at a premium. We’ll be in uncharted, unpredictable territory with Olympic finals anyone might win.

Who’s for a Coronavirus gold medal?

Annie Vernon won a silver medal in the women’s quad at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She is a sports journalist and speaker

‘Unprecedented’ is the most used word of the last 12 months, but when it comes to uncertainty around the Olympics, we are not in uncharted waters.

Since the first modern Olympics in 1896, there have been wartime cancellations in 1916, 1940 and 1944; and partial boycotts in 1956, 1964, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988.

Munich 1972 and Atlanta 1996 both saw terrorist acts resulting in deaths. The torch relay into Beijing 2008 was hugely disrupted by (legitimate) human-rights protesters. The concrete was still wet in the Athens 2004 venues as the athletes arrived, and before Rio 2016 there were widespread fears about crime.

This will be a bigger test for the athletes than any other Games in history

In short, the Olympics have never had a smooth path from the choosing of the host city to the closing ceremony. World Championships are about sport whereas the Games are about much more. With the eyes of the world on one place for two weeks, politics cannot be avoided.

The athletes will prepare as they do for any event: by focusing on the controllables. The main message they will be giving themselves is that everyone starts level. There is not an athlete in the world whose preparation hasn’t been drastically affected by COVID. If everyone is training for Tokyo under the same conditions, can you cope with the uncertainty better than anyone else?

The question they are being asked has changed, but their answer should still be the same: yes, I can do this, yes, I am going to produce my best performance.

If they were planned for the UK, would you want them to proceed?

Will Tokyo 2020 go ahead? For the sake of the athletes and as a sports fan, I hope so. I’m desperate to see Dina Asher-Smith race the 100m, and Vicky Thornley contest the women’s single sculls on the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay.

But if they were planned for the UK, would you want them to proceed? Would you want the government to expend energy on the Games, rather than focusing on vaccinations and reopening the economy? Would you want tens of thousands of people to arrive at Heathrow?

In Japan, the venues have been built, the staff recruited, the contracts signed, the volunteers trained. The money has been spent and the only way of recouping some of those costs will be staging the Games. Spectators will be out of the question, but selling the television rights will be a huge cheque to land in Tokyo during an economic crisis.

My prediction is that the Games will proceed. The authorities will allow minimal support staff and media to join the 11,000 athletes, and will strictly enforce quarantine procedures.

My other prediction is that this will be a bigger test for the athletes than any other Games in history. Winning a gold medal in Tokyo this summer will not just mean you are the best at your sport, but that you are also the most resilient, most gritty, most adaptable. This will be a challenge greater than any race ever staged.