Tokyo 2020 is set to be historic, an anomaly, contentious. This much is guaranteed. The postponed summer event is currently scheduled to proceed. But doubts will likely linger to the last minute about whether it really is, and indeed, whether it should. There are a range of health, moral, ethical, financial, reputational, political, and operational issues to consider, and risks to manage, for those involved. 

It is already the first Games in history to be postponed. (World wars are the only reason the event has been cancelled outright before, in 1916, 1940 and 1944). There will be no international spectators, for the first time. A “playbook” of rules – which will be further updated as the event approaches – has outlined the many ways age-old athletes’ and spectators’ behaviours and expectations will be modified for pandemic times. No hugging, no cheering, no singing, no enjoyment of local cultural sites and eateries by visiting delegations, no mingling in the Olympic Village.  

There are hopes there will be no COVID too, but precedent suggests that is harder to achieve. The disease has affected people associated with many supposedly COVID-secure sports events throughout the past year, although it has not, notably, derailed many of them. Many sports events have ultimately been completed successfully. These events have served their purpose, as much as possible in restricted circumstances, for sports people, the public and sponsors alike. Even without the usual crowds and freedoms, major sports events are unquestionably playing an important life-affirming role for many coping with this challenging period. 

Recovery and vaccines 

The pandemic is going to remain a serious global challenge for the rest of this year, at least. Recovery is under way, but this process will be complex, fragmented and protracted. Vaccination will make possible a reopening of economies by the summer across North America, parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Supply challenges will ease as rich, reopening countries become more willing to share and as more vaccines become available across the world, increasing the options available to countries in lower- and middle-income countries. But it is likely to be 2023-2024 before mass vaccination has been achieved globally. 

There are also doubts about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines in widespread use. A host of religious, ethical, moral, cultural and health concerns and views are affecting take-up of vaccination globally and will apply to Olympic delegations too.  Any scheme to give Olympic competitors special access to vaccines would be contentious, partly as sports people may not take up the vaccines offered, but also because the scheme would potentially expose the Olympics, National Olympic Committees and International Federations to reputational risk. 

No country would find hosting the Olympics during a pandemic easy. Even those who have managed the pandemic well, including China and New Zealand, would face difficulties overseeing inbound travel by tens of thousands of sports delegations.   The government in Japan has attracted criticism at home, and surprise abroad, for its apparent lacklustre response to the disease. The country has experienced multiple surges of COVID-19. It has barely begun a vaccination programme which is not targeted to reach even all healthcare workers and higher risk parts of the population by the time the games are due to start in July. There are doubts about the effectiveness of local contact tracing. 

Meanwhile, there are multiple mutations of the disease spreading globally, and fast. Everywhere the disease is spreading uncontained there is opportunity for mutations which could make the disease yet more transmissible and/or deadly, and which could render existing vaccinations less effective. Delegations to the Olympics will be travelling from areas where mutations of COVID-19 are on the ascendant and are so far little understood. There are signs that the evolved disease is infecting more younger people and is increasing the risk that even younger and healthier people require hospitalisation if they catch the disease, including in Brazil and India. 

The persistent spread of disease and the development of variants raises the prospect of disease posing a greater threat to sports people, and of the Olympics being seen as a ‘super spreader’ event should delegations spread the disease into, within or out of transit points and the Olympic venues in Tokyo. Given the dynamism and unpredictability of the pandemic, there is also an ever-present danger of sudden changes to levels or types of COVID-19 requiring last-minute changes to plans. These could be comparatively low-impact changes such as the ones we have seen already impacting on test events and the torch relay, or they could be much higher-impact changes to, for example, the participation of a major team or to the scale or holding of the event itself. 

Joyous sporting moments 

Mindful of this fluidity, the final “playbook” is yet to be released. Many lessons have been learned over the past year about how to run a major sports event in the context of COVID-19 and if these are applied effectively, the organisers may feel confident that the associated risks can be contained. Precedent would suggest that a major sports event can proceed without directly worsening a pandemic. Absent of a dramatic escalation in the COVID crisis characterised by, for example, sudden rapid case growth in Japan, confirmation that vaccines have no impact on a new mutation or a decision by a major participant country to withdraw, the games are likely to proceed. 

But strong, nimble leadership across the event informed by the latest available information on COVID-19, and the strictest enforcement of comprehensive rules on testing, quarantining, movement and behaviours will be required to ensure the event is remembered for joyous sporting moments rather than COVID statistics. In an increasingly fraught geopolitical and post-pandemic environment, ensuring an event is known best for joyous sporting moments will be a particular challenge for many other major international sports events coming up beyond Tokyo 2020. There will be much at stake. 

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