A different kind of Games: Tokyo Olympics under coronavirus cloud

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The Tokyo Olympics start this week against many coronavirus odds and amid opposition from within the host country. But athletes are happy they can compete, even with plenty of restrictions and no fans on site.

Berlin (dpa) – The Tokyo Olympics open a year later than planned on Friday, not as the usual joyful festival of world sport but amid wide-ranging concerns and restrictions owing to the coronavirus.

The more than 10,000 athletes will mostly have to compete behind closed doors and in a bubble environment in a host city which is under a pandemic-related state of emergency.

Japan’s government, local organizers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have repeatedly insisted the environment will be safe but a majority of the Japanese people oppose the staging of the Games under the current conditions, and so do health experts.

Olympic top sponsors Toyota have pulled Games-related ads in order to protect the image of their brand, and a domestic sponsor, the respected Asahi Shimbun newspaper had in May called for the cancellation of the Games in an editorial. 

IOC president Thomas Bach said last week that scrapping the Games was never an option after the unprecedented one-year delay owing to the global health crisis but that they “would and must” be different now.

“If we could have the Games safely, then we wanted to have them. This principle has guided us until today. We can confidently say that we have minimized the risk for the Games.”

There have been several coronavirus cases, including athletes, within the Olympic bubble by now but officials hope that isolation and other measures can contain the virus – especially from spreading to the Japanese population amid fears the Games could be a super spreader event. 

“The IOC wouldn’t let down the athletes,” Bach insisted, and many of those seem to be happy to compete regardless of the restrictions and absence of fans.

While professional tennis players such as Serena Williams and Roger Federer, or top golfers including Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia, won’t be present, the Olympics still offer the biggest stage for others like American gymnast Simone Biles, veteran Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce or American swimmer Katie Ledecky.

“It will be a different Games but it will be the Olympic Games – and that’s what matters. We have the Olympic Games, and I want to get the gold medal, that’s the focus,” German javelin thrower Johannes Vetter said.

Daily coronavirus tests, social distancing, the absence of friends and family and having to leave the athletes’ village two days after competition are part of the bubble environment which will deny the usual joyful atmosphere.

“The exchange between nations won’t happen like in the past. But the athletes will find a focus to concentrate on sport,” German middle distance runner Caterina Granz said. 

It also remains to be seen whether the winners of the 339 gold medals on offer in 33 sports will embark on a traditional lap of honour with their national flags in empty venues.

Russian athletes won’t have their flag as owing to doping-related sanctions they must compete as neutrals like at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This means they compete under the Olympic flag and without their national anthem. 

Especially keen to compete under the Olympic rings will be those in returning baseball/softball, and those in the four new sports of karate, surfing, sports climbing, and skateboarding.

The latter three are included to make the Games more attractive for a younger audience. 

A refugee team of 26 athletes makes its second appearance at the Games, following the 2016 debut in Rio de Janeiro.

Athletes are not only tested regularly for the coronavirus but the Games are also seeing a huge anti-doping effort, with the International Testing Agency (ITA) saying last week that around 80 per cent of the qualified athletes have been tested.

The ITA spoke of “a global motivation to ensure a level playing field” through “the most extensive anti-doping programme over implemented ahead of an edition of the Olympic Games.”

dpa

Photo- Staff members gather around the National Stadium, the main venue of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan, 18 July 2021. Just five days before the opening of the Tokyo Games, latest polls show that a major part of the population is concerned about the the Olympics as Tokyo recorded 1,000 new COVID-19 cases for the fifth straight day. EPA-EFE/FRANCK ROBICHON