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Tokyo 2020(1)

This week we’re listening: On hosting the Olympics in a pandemic, and what could have been

Protesters hold banners as they call for the Tokyo Olympics to be cancelled on February 12, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo 2020 Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori stepped down today after sexist comments sparked calls for his resignation, leaving the Olympics organisers leaderless with 5 months to the Games. Polls have indicated that a large percentage of Japanese oppose holding the postponed Olympics this summer amid the continuing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The torches are lit, the starting gun has been fired and the Games are going full speed ahead. From the logistics of hosting a pandemic games to the sportspeople who have worked their whole lives for this event, this podcast talks the listener through all you need to know about the Olympics.

The Covid Olympics – Today, Explained

  • Format: Single episode
  • Year: 2021
  • Listen on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.

One year later than planned, Japan was determined to pull Tokyo 2020(1) off, but it hasn’t been without a hitch. This episode of Today, Explained takes listeners through the timeline of the lead-up to the Games, unpacking how organisers and participants alike have had to adapt to changing circumstances whilst still maintaining the integrity of an event that celebrates sports at the highest level.

A gold medal in controversy

It’s not just about the sport. The Olympics are highly political, and when the eyes of the world are watching, host countries also feel the pressure to perform. Even without a pandemic, Tokyo has been no exception and has had its fair share of tension.

“Even beyond the big Covid elephant in the room, we’ve seen scandals and weird controversies erupt. In February, the former head of the Tokyo Organising Committee created a controversy when he made some sexist comments – said women talk too much at the board meetings,” explains podcast guest and Vox journalist Jen Kirby.

After his comments, a “groundswell of criticism from sponsors, athletes, diplomats and the Japanese public” forced former prime minister Yoshiro Mori to resign, a clip from Al Jazeera reports.

Then came March, when the creative director of the opening and closing ceremonies made disparaging remarks about a Japanese female comedian, proposing that she appear at the opening ceremony dressed as a pig, CNA is heard reporting.

Mere days before the Olympics were to begin, the music director for the opening ceremony resigned after it came out that he had bullied children with disabilities.

Even after that, quite literally down to the wire before the Games began, yet another opening ceremony director had to resign because of past comments dismissing the Holocaust.

“And this was all happening before things even got started,” host Sean Rameswaram says.

And then there is the issue of the weather.

“Tokyo is extremely hot and humid. So there’s been a lot of concern about the athletes who have to perform outside, how much they could withstand. And of course, the reason for the timing is because of the broadcast schedule. It’s a good TV window… got to get those ad dollars,” Kirby explains.

In fact, tennis players petitioned to get their matches moved into cooler times of the day after some athletes suffered from heatstroke.

“Now, there’s concern about the weather because there’s apparently a typhoon on the way that could disrupt the games,” Kirby adds.

And then, in a bizarre turn of events, there is a bear on the loose in Tokyo.

“There was a bear spotted a few days ago, which apparently is a thing because of the pandemic… He was wandering around the softball field,” Kirby says, explaining that bear sightings have increased over the last few months, “like nature reclaiming its territory, so to speak.

“I mean, the bear seems like the least of their problems. Last I heard, it has not been caught. But, you know, maybe if someone tests positive for Covid, they could give him a spot on the team,” she laughs.

A boat sails past the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Rings on March 25, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Following yesterdays announcement that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be postponed to 2021 because of the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, IOC officials have said they hope to confirm a new Olympics date as soon as possible. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

An easily popped bubble

This brings the podcast back to “the big Covid elephant in the room”. Regardless of the heatwave, storm warning and the hirings and firings of officials, Tokyo still had and has a mammoth task on its hands: pulling off an Olympic Games in the middle of a pandemic, with hundreds of athletes and staff who touched down in Japan from all over the world, without spreading Covid-19. After a year of physical distancing, isolation and lockdowns, it seemed borderline impossible.

“The pandemic is hovering around the edges of the Games,” Kirby says.

It makes sense that Japan is holding so firmly to hosting the Olympics. After all, it has cost the country millions in preparations, not to mention the pride that comes with being the host country. With the Winter Olympics coming next year, time is running out, and while the Games have been cancelled before due to World Wars, this is the first time they were postponed, so there is a lot riding on making it happen.

“The International Olympic Committee promised that these would be a safe and secure Olympics. And one of the ways they did that was to lay out this pandemic playbook with all of these Covid protocols. Athletes in the Olympic Village specifically would have strict rules and face penalties if they break them. And those rules are around masking and social distancing and, you know, no hugging and kissing,” explains Kirby.

“Which is why there was that rumour about those anti-sex beds…” she adds.

Turns out, the beds in the Olympic Village were made from sustainable cardboard in an effort to be environmentally friendly, not to prevent any high-performance athlete hookups.

“We should note that Japan still did hand out condoms because, you know, the Olympic Village… you put a lot of fit young people together… so lots of antics happen,” Kirby quips. This is standard at the Olympics, but it is the other safety precautions that Tokyo has taken that are new (and vital) to the pandemic games.

“Things like Plexiglas barriers were put into cafeterias and chairs removed. And the idea was to kind of create this, you know, protective measures against the pandemic as well as encouraging vaccination, but not mandating it,” Kirby says.

“The International Olympic Committee encouraged athletes to get vaccinated, but it did not mandate them, which some experts thought the IOC should do for this very reason. But they did work with Pfizer to help distribute vaccines to Olympic delegations who might not otherwise have easy access to vaccines. And some countries did prioritise vaccinations.

“The IOC says 80 to 85% of the people in the Olympic Village were expected to be vaccinated ahead of the Games. But we don’t know from what countries or what delegations.”

Has it worked? That remains to be seen.

“Well, the results have been pretty mixed. So far we’ve had more than one 150 people testing positive for Covid-19. And more than a dozen of them have been athletes. The others have been contractors or volunteers or Tokyo 2020 employees.”

It is also not the most secure bubble either, as everyone in attendance is still interacting with people outside their events and teams, Rameswaram adds.

“The athletes in the Olympic Village are under strict protocols. They’re not supposed to leave except to go to their events. But, of course, at the events they are going to be interacting with people who are not staying in the Olympic Village; volunteers and media and coaches,” explains Kirby.

Missed opportunity?

The episode also looks beyond these Games, and questions whether the pandemic has provided a chance to do things differently. While Tokyo has stuck to the plan as much as possible, that does not mean things can’t change in the future.

“With climate change, does it make sense to be bringing all these athletes around the world to one place and building all this infrastructure? And will we even be able to host the Summer Olympics in 40 years or something like that? And there have been discussions as to whether this model of picking a host city and having them build all the infrastructure… if it’s even a good idea. There’s talk about potentially finding a permanent location like, say, Athens,” Kirby says.

“I think we’re definitely going to think about how we do the Olympics. And in a lot of ways, Tokyo would have been a good opportunity to try something different. You know, perhaps spacing it out over many weeks, which would have been more Covid safe, but also proving whether we can do the Olympics differently at a different pace. But we won’t know.

“And for now, the Olympics seem pretty locked in. Just recently, the IOC announced that Brisbane, Australia, will have the 2032 Olympics. So for at least the next decade, it doesn’t really look like anything’s changing.” DM/ML

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