David Owen

How the Olympic Movement needs its regular fix of sport.

There are all sorts of reasons for what is, admittedly, a statement of the blindingly obvious.

What the current enforced hiatus is underlining is that one of the more significant of these reasons is that sport distracts from the messy business of planning and preparing for a truly gargantuan – and, all being well, universal- quadrennial flagship event.

The best example of this in my experience was Beijing 2008.

Throughout the build-up, this was the most political Olympic and Paralympic project since the 1980s.

The impressive, supremely self-confident Opening Ceremony – still, I believe, the most-watched live television show in human history – did nothing to alter that.

But the sport, once it finally started, was so stunning – not least for us Brits, basking in the wondrous spectacle of the medals table – that it shoved all other considerations into the background within 72 hours at most.

Under normal circumstances, Tokyo 2020, though nowhere near as politically charged, might just have accomplished something similar. 

Instead, hot dossier after hot dossier keeps being flung out of the maelstrom of world affairs to land sizzling on the desk of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.

The execution of Navid Afkari is another pressing matter which has arrived in the IOC in-tray ©Getty Images
The execution of Navid Afkari is another pressing matter which has arrived in the IOC in-tray ©Getty Images

In the past few days alone, "What to do about Iran?" – in the wake of the shocking execution of wrestler Navid Afkari – has been added to a long and pressing list of burning issues which Bach and colleagues must somehow plot a path through without, if possible, triggering major diplomatic ructions or further damaging the Olympic brand.

The Tokyo 2020 situation has also acquired a new layer of complexity with the emergence of Yoshihide Suga as Shinzō Abe's successor as Japanese Prime Minister.

On one level, this should be reassuring for the IOC: Suga, as Abe's political fixer, was the continuity candidate.

He no doubt knows how important the Games are to his former boss.

It seems a realistic expectation, therefore, that he will prioritise putting on the best show possible under whatever COVID-19 environment pertains in July-September 2021.

But – and even in a country with political traditions as tidy and polite as Japan's – it could be quite a big "but", no sooner was Suga's succession confirmed, than rumours started circulating that he might want to call an early election.

As I understand it, this would be to try to capitalise on a wave of sympathy for Abe, who stepped down as a consequence of health issues, in this case ulcerative colitis.

This might be a rather nerve-racking process for the IOC, given the number of bids which have foundered on the rock of public opinion in recent years.

Local views on the Games appear to be split: a survey dating from late June suggested that more than half of Tokyo residents did not at that time want the postponed event to be held next year.

Views might have changed; opinion in the country outside Tokyo may be different from that prevailing in the capital itself; the Olympics might be overshadowed by other issues during the course of a campaign that would have little in common with the sort of plebiscites that have been tripping up Olympic bids.

Olympic leaders might also draw reassurance from the comfortable re-election of Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike in July.

Shinzō Abe, left, has been replaced by Yoshihide Suga, right, as Japanese Prime Minister ©Getty Images
Shinzō Abe, left, has been replaced by Yoshihide Suga, right, as Japanese Prime Minister ©Getty Images

General elections, though, are fickle, unpredictable beasts – all the more so, seemingly, in the social media age – and the pandemic continues to rampage through several countries whose athletes and fans would normally expect to be present in Tokyo.

You could hardly blame Japanese citizens for getting cold feet about this prospective multinational invasion until the pandemic is demonstrably under better control.

Even if the Tokyo 2020 project eventually comes out of any early election unscathed, an autumn campaign is a complication which organisers – who have so much else on their plate if there is to be any prospect of a recognisable Summer Olympics taking place next year – could do without. 

One possible way of countering any negative impact on plans to stage the Games that such an early campaign might have could be to reconnect Abe – the Super Mario impersonator of Rio 2016 – with one of his pet projects.

I wonder if this in any way accounts for rumours that the former Prime Minister – with whom Bach appears to enjoy a particularly good rapport – might be offered a senior role on the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee.

I have even heard it suggested this might be as President: like Abe, Yoshirō Mori, the 83-year-old incumbent has had health issues, revealing in 2015 that he had undergone treatment for lung cancer.

From this far afield, it is difficult to know how much credence to accord such speculation; acceptance of anything more than a figurehead role would depend, presumably, on a) Abe's health and b) Mori's attitude to any such change.

Based on what I have heard so far though, I would say do not be overly surprised if something along these lines happens.