LAUSANNE, January 27, 2021 (Info sportspress.lu / AIPS media) – The countdown to the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games has been overwhelmed by more doubts than expectations due to the persistent coronavirus pandemic that has altered everyday life, with organisers spending the eve of “six months to go” vehemently dismissing cancellation reports.

While the Japanese government, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) have consistently insisted the Games will open on July 23, 2021, persuading the public remains an enormous challenge, amid rise in virus cases across several countries after the discovery of new variants.

However, Lucia Montanarella, Head of Olympic Games Media Operations, has emphasised that since the Games were postponed on March 24, 2020, the focus within the IOC has been on how (and not if) they will happen.

Montanarella was speaking as one of ten Olympic experts who addressed some of the burning questions and conversations around this year’s Games in Tokyo on Tuesday, January 26 during an AIPS event “Let’s talk about Tokyo Olympics”, a virtual seminar that attracted nearly 300 participants from the five continents.

The panel, led by AIPS President Gianni Merlo, was also composed of some of the distinguished members of the AIPS Sport Media Awards jury, all of whom boast more than 200 combined years of Olympic coverage: Vincent Amalvy, Jaap de Groot, Donna de Varona, Gary Kemper, Shinsuke Kobayashi, Andreas Schirmer, Steve Wilson and Jie Zhou. 

In his welcome speech, Merlo, who has the most Olympic appearances under his belt (23 summer and winter Games) stressed the need to be “a little bit optimistic” for Tokyo 2020 “and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially for the young generation”. With reference to the 2020 NBA bubble, Merlo highlighted that governments are trying a find a solution for sport “because sport is something that touches the interest of every generation.” 

He fears that sport will collapse with the cancellation of the Games because even if the IOC manages to survive, the fate of many international and national federations would be in jeopardy because they would have no money. A “very bad situation” that could attract more criminals into sport, he reckons.

“For this reason I hope that it will be possible to be in Tokyo this summer. I know that it is difficult but if there is a country that can organise a big bubble for the Olympic Games, it’s Japan,” Merlo added.

BUBBLE ENIGMA Montanarella pointed out that creating a big bubble for Tokyo 2020 “is not as easy as creating a bubble for one sport and one event with just a couple of hundred athletes”. But she emphasised that when it comes to the media, it is clear that “these Games are going to be different and it’s not going to be a piece of cake to cover”,taking into consideration the restrictions that would be in place.

“We’ve been trying to as much as possible preserve access to the athletes, to the sources. But obviously access to the athletes at the Tokyo Games would be extremely difficult and not because there are restrictions but because we know that also the NOCs would be very conservative in allowing the athletes out of the bubble. 

The postponement announced last March and the current conditions are very different, everyone agreed. 

As Steve Wilson (USA) detailed, “a year ago we were just getting the grips of the pandemic we didn’t know really what it was, where it was going, how bad it would be and now here we are a year later we have vaccines being developed and vaccinations being administered in different countries, athletes got used to being tested.”

CRUNCH TIME Shinsuke Kobayashi (Japan), who leads Kyodo’s coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Games as Managing Director of Olympic and Paralympic News Office, confirmed that the situation in Japanese capital “is not very bright”, with the surge in Covid infections and the plunge in public support for the Games. He believes that if things get better “people’s sentiment will change quickly”. Approving the vaccines and finishing the state of emergency, two possible measures that will happen next month, will help to change that perception.

The crunch time will be March, he said. Wilson shares the same opinion, because the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 test events begin in March and the Torch relay is scheduled to commence on March 25. More so, the Olympics was postponed on March 24 last year. Eleven prefectures in Japan are currently under State of Emergency, which is expected to be lifted on February 8.

“It’s impossible at this point to really say anything with absolute certainty or finality, but that’s the way things are,” Wilson explained. 

“To be an optimist, we should expect the Games are going to go ahead in some form or the other and really there’s a lot of reasons for that. The political and financial stakes are just so high for the Games not to take place. Just think of the eight years that Japan has been preparing for this event, the billions of dollars that have been put into it, the effort, the manpower, the resources, it’s something that you wouldn’t just want to throw away at this point. 

“I think it’s something that is a national priority for Japan and despite the pessimism that is being shown in some of the polls, I think Japan would really like to pull this off and show that they could do it in this time of crisis, and how important that would be for the world,” Wilson added.

TESTING PLATFORMS For Jie Zhou (China), Tokyo is not just the finishing line but the beginning, since only six months later, the Winter Olympics will take place in Beijing. Some events were already used as testing platforms, he reckoned.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently inspected the venues to be used at the Games and according to Zhou, “the inspection assured us that Beijing would do its best to host a successful Winter Olympic Games. Our president gave us three priniciples of the Beijing Games; safety, simplicity and excellence.”

According to Jaap de Groot (the Netherlands), every country is now involved in trying to solve the problem. “Every continent is more or less busy with creating it’s own test event. From chess to Formula 1, we’ve seen this happening. And I’m sure that the IOC and Tokyo will use the blueprints to solve a percentage of the big problem we are facing towards July 23.” 

Andreas Schirmer (Germany) confessed that listening to Montanarella’s presentation fuelled his optimism that the “Olympics will go on”, but he acknowledged that it would be difficult for journalists. “Olympics are for athletes, not journalists, but without being able to be inside the Village and without special transportation, moving will be extremely tough.”

CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY Even more difficult for photographers, according to Gary Kemper (USA), who explained that “they are going to have to understand that a lot of their positions are going to be far away” and would have to arrive with some long lenses because they would not be that close to the action. “It will be a burden in all ways, but at the same time, overcoming these obstacles from new positions and new perspectives is the natural instinct of all professionals, as we are seeing in the submissions of the AIPS Sport Media Awards of this year”.

Vincent Amalvy (France), head of AFP Asia, is looking forward to a “very, very interesting” Olympic Games, which will offer a completely different view. “It should of course be a frustration for the photographer because first is to be able to find the right position, but we need to be imaginative, to be creative and do our best to try to show to the rest of the world how these Olympics will be,” he said.

Donna de Varona’s final message underlined the importance of Tokyo Olympics happening: “These Games would offer hope and possibility to a world that is really struggling. The possibility of human beings coming together in a global gathering to celebrate youth is the most important message we can give to the world seeking common ground. We are so divided and so polarized that in some uncanny way the virus has brought us together to fight the unseen enemy.

“My wish is that we all sacrifice, that we all promote the Games in Tokyo,” the two-time Olympic gold medalist urged.

(Graphics by Nordcap Studio)