Tokyo Sets The Olympic Stage As Games Starts To Emerge From Pandemic’s Dark Shadows
June 9, 2021
Michael Pirrie looks at how Tokyo’s preparations for hosting this summer’s Olympic Games are ramping up as the event looks all set to go ahead.
When working with organising committees for previous Olympic Games, I recall vividly the arrival of the first athletes and teams as the moment that the Games suddenly becomes real.
These first arrivals after a decade or more of planning were a defining moment of quiet celebration. The Games at last had arrived with the athletes.
“I recall vividly the arrival of the first athletes and teams as the moment that the Games suddenly becomes real.”
Those teams have now started to arrive in Japan with the Australian softball team first in the world to touch down last week, with more Olympic teams also Japan bound, led by Covid compliance and information officers.
FROM DOUBT TO DELIVERY
Despite the enormous uncertainties, Tokyo is getting Games ready even as speculation continues about a possible last minute cancellation. Olympic organisers have moved into the mission critical final countdown phase of operational planning in a global pandemic.
Tokyo is moving from doubt to delivery. After much conjecture and controversy, the rapidly approaching Games is coming into clearer view.
There have been many turning points along the way. Even with infections still spreading, Tokyo’s recent pre-Games test events program was its most decisive moment.
Like many critical junctures, the significance of these trial events has been underestimated outside most Olympic circles; obscured by global speculation about Japan’s virus surge, protests, and state of emergency extensions.
TURNING THE GAMES
The trials demonstrated the safe operation of key biosecurity infection control procedures in principle and in practice.
The success of the test events program meant almost everything for Tokyo’s Games, with many Olympic athletes around the world completing Games qualification; preparing to pack uniforms and confirm flights; and broadcast schedules under constant review.
The tests indicated essential sporting infrastructure and services for the Games could operate in Covid safe ways for athletes and other participating groups.
“The significance of these trial events has been underestimated outside most Olympic circles; obscured by global speculation about Japan’s virus surge.”
This was an important response to prolonged speculation preoccupying Japan and the international community about the future of the Games. Countermeasures used globally to combat high-risk transmission routes most relevant to Games safety and venues were successfully tested.
These included especially the all pervasive threat from airborne transmission, which previously prompted French President Macron – who will represent his nation at the Tokyo Games – to request passengers to refrain from speaking while travelling on the France metro.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
The sounds of silence also filled Tokyo’s test venues, with no cheering or chanting to prevent possible infection from invisible virus particles in the air.
That silence will be golden for Olympic teams and athletes required to comply with strict safety protocols on arrival in Japan.
These will involve “Things like not speaking, so for example not at meal times…”, according to Clare Warwick, a member of the Australian Olympic softball team.
The Olympian was speaking shortly after arriving a week ago to prepare for the Games.
The arrival of the team from Australia, a leading Olympic nation, was also a milestone for Tokyo, sending a message of confidence in Games preparations and safety to the international community.
Prior test events, which included some international athletes, also trialled travel, transport and accommodation bubbles and helped to pave the way for pre Games arrivals and preparations.
GAMES IN A LABORATORY
With public support plunging in recent months due to rising Covid cases, the test events may be the most important program in Tokyo’s marathon 10-year journey to the Olympic Games.
The tests were conducted in laboratory-like conditions in highly sanitised bubbles and hubs: minimal numbers and movement of athletes and officials; no direct public contact; and no spectators to eliminate possible risk of infection in venues and other settings.
Although smaller than previous test events programs I have worked on in London and Sydney, Tokyo tested a diverse range of Olympic settings, sports and disciplines. These included volleyball, gymnastics, diving, track and field half marathon, sprinting, and skateboarding, on debut.
The test events will not immediately quell questions over the future of the Games.
But the trials will help to maintain belief that the safety of the Games is still possible and achievable amongst Olympic stakeholders and Japan’s most important allies, including US President Joe Biden.
White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, late last month confirmed that the United States supported the Tokyo Games proceeding with a very strict set of safety protocols. Another turning ppint.
The most asked question in world sport was answered emphatically at a recent IOC media conference which declared Games preparations were ‘moving fully ahead.’
CROSSING THE RUBICON
IOC vice president John Coates and Tokyo Olympic president Seiko Hashimoto both attempted to reinforce confidence in the Games even more recently and emphatically reconfirmed that organisers are fully focussed on the Games.
The test events had much to do with that confidence and belief that the Games could go ahead, even in a state of emergency. If so, Tokyo has crossed the Rubicon to the Olympic Games over the test events bridge.
While the ultimate test will come next month, the trials were a survival test for Tokyo. An outbreak of test event infections would have been an almost critical setback.
“We have successfully seen five sports hold test events during a state of emergency,” Coates emphasised after a recent Games progress review meeting.
TESTING FOR HOPE
The tests offer more than hope for Games organisers against a virus that kills hope. No Covid infections were reported among competitors or in neighbourhoods surrounding test venues.
IOC president Thomas Bach has often said that it was a matter of how not if the Gams would go ahead. The test events provide the How.
The tests showed that complex venue arrangements, live field of play and broadcast sports presentation, scoring, timing and results systems essential for the Games could operate in Covid safe settings.
Athletes importantly reported feeling safe in test bubbles and hubs. Another turning point vital in the current global environment of fear and uncertainty, with the virus still spreading in many Olympic nations and host Japan.
While life and sport are starting to slowly recover in some parts of the vaccinated world, India’s Covid catastrophe loomed Nostradamus-like.
The trials provided the first preview of preliminary Covid countermeasures in action before the world’s single biggest peace time event opens next month in one of the world’s biggest cities in a global pandemic.
Still regarded as mission impossible for many, the Tokyo Olympic Games mission will take Japan, Olympic nations worldwide and the international community into terra incognita.
Acknowledging the anxiety, the widely respected former British Olympic gold medallist and current World Athletics president Seb Coe, sought to reassure Japan through the test events.
“We take very seriously the health and well being of local communities,” Coe said. “We have Covid protocols that have been tried and tested, and I’ve witnessed them here (in Japan).”
Test event hubs and bubble operations will need to be dramatically expanded and reinforced in the weeks ahead to cope with high Games time numbers, which pose the greatest risk.
These numbers could include Japanese spectators as fans start to return to major international events. The presence of spectators is the most critical decision remaining for organisers and will define the look and atmosphere of the Tokyo Games.
Spectators also increase risks significantly, and will depend on virus and vaccination levels in Tokyo and in other Games areas.
Proof of inoculation or negative Covid-19 status would also likely be required for admission, in line with protocols in place or planned for major international and continental events this summer.
Spectator attendance will also depend on confidence in venue ventilation and air purification systems and reconfiguration of venue seating at safe distances from fields of play and athletes.
GAMES DESIGNED TO ‘PROTECT LIVES’
Strong and prolonged opposition to the Tokyo Games on public health grounds might be starting to soften according to most recent polls. Another possible turning point.
Concern also over the failure of government emergency restrictions to stop the virus spreading, with average daily new infections starting to dip and stabilise.
The Government’s ‘proceed at almost any cost’ messaging around the Games has alienated many sectors of Japanese society and international support.
“The urgency of countermeasures, including playbooks – the new rules governing life and avoiding potential death at the Games – must also be better communicated.”
Moving forward, Tokyo authorities must urgently soften communications around the Games and address messaging which has been out of step with the mood of national and international audiences.
Japan’s public health fears and challenges of the Games need to more directly and empathetically addressed and communicated.
This is vital to rebuilding trust and confidence.
The urgency of countermeasures, including playbooks – the new rules governing life and avoiding potential death at the Games – must also be better communicated. “These are Covid-19 counter measures designed to protect people’s lives,” Toshiro Muto, chief executive of Tokyo Games organisation, said recently.
The test event protocols and related countermeasures indicate a potential pandemic resistant pathway through the Games might be possible.
The Covid situation in world sport remains fragile with recent Covid scares at the French Open and PGA tour. Some athletes have already been eliminated from the Games after testing positive in Olympic qualification.
Highly infectious and rapidly spreading variant strains are now circulating globally, while knowledge of new transmission settings and risks is still evolving, like the virus.
This means the Tokyo Games is highly unlikely to avoid Covid entirely, but the countermeasures, along with growing vaccination coverage in Japan and amongst international Olympic athletes and participants, will help to make Tokyo Covid safer if not Covid proof or virus free.
A zero risk environment is not possible.
OLYMPIC FLAME STILL BURNING
A senior IOC member recently said only an Armageddon-like event could stop the Games. As he spoke, the Torch Relay was tracking prophetically through largely empty streets resembling deserted landscapes from Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel The Road.
The Olympic flame is still burning and torch teams are still on the road to Tokyo, despite earlier infections.
They know the Olympic Games awaits at the end of that road, excluding a viral Armageddon – the sombre terminology and reality surrounding the all encompassing threat this virus represents to the world and the Games.
“A senior IOC member recently said only an Armageddon-like event could stop the Games.”
Organisers believe they are prepared for almost all eventualities. “All of the plans to protect safety and security of athletes are based around worst possible circumstances,” Coates said recently.
A host nation on high alert will be waiting to welcome the torch carriers – the front line Games workers who have kept the flame burning for Tokyo and the world.
Japan, a nation that often expresses itself through sport in times of adversity, will also be waiting with pride for its athletes as they emerge from the shadows of the pandemic for their home Games.
GETTING GAMES READY
Following test event rehearsals, the stages are being adjusted in venues for performances that many feared might never have been seen. The story of the Tokyo Games has been one of turning points and sliding doors. Those doors may soon be opening to the world.
The massive scaffolding of support needed for Games operations and production crews is moving into place, accreditations and visas continue to be processed, and referees are being instructed on line.
The Games now is highly likely to happen. It seems there will be no turning back.
Anxious Olympic athletes and organisers, nervous medical experts and expectant global audiences will soon be awaiting the official start to the Games and praying for a Covid safe Games ending.
Michael Pirrie is a communications and campaign consultant sand Olympic Games advisor who has worked on test events programs for the London and Sydney Olympic Games committees.