Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

To announce, in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, that the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics will go ahead next summer "no matter what happens" sounds very much like creating a hostage to fortune - and a significant one at that.

It was the Tokyo 2020 President, Yoshirō Mori, who felt emboldened to make that statement at the end of September, as reported by Kyodo News, while he was at a party organised by factions of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Since then, with much of the world returning to the lockdown measures adopted earlier this year, there has been a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Japan, with many of the infections occurring in Tokyo and also Sapporo, the proposed venue for race walks and marathons.

On November 8, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who had previously said he would seek to prevent the "explosive spread" of coronavirus, warned: "We have to watch the situation with a stronger sense of caution than before."

Six weeks earlier the three-time Japanese Olympian Hiroshi Hoketsu told Kyodo that statements about holding the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with or without COVID-19 were "regrettable".

Hoketsu became Japan’s oldest Olympian when he competed in equestrian events at London 2012 at the age of 70 and is seeking to qualify for Tokyo 2020. He was reacting to a comment made by International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president John Coates on September 7, that "the Games will start as planned on July 23 with or without COVID."

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori has said that the postponed Olympics and Paralympics will go ahead next summer
Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori has said that the postponed Olympics and Paralympics will go ahead next summer "no matter what happens" ©Getty Images

The 79-year-old added: "There will be more than 100,000 athletes, press, and other related personnel flying into Tokyo from all over the world for the event.

"If any of them feel that it is unsafe to come to Tokyo, they have the option of staying home. This is not true for the Japanese people - we do not have such an option.

"Visitors will be coming regardless of how we feel. According to a survey done by Kyodo in July, only one in four Japanese welcome the idea of hosting the Olympics next year.

"For the vice-president of the International Olympic Committee to make such a statement without taking into consideration the Japanese people's sentiments, is quite irresponsible and regrettable."

Doubts remain in Japan about the safety or moral correctness of holding the Games in Tokyo next year - the Olympics are now scheduled for July 23 to August 8, followed by the Paralympics from August 24 to September 5 - in the current circumstances.

Last week an Associated Press story quoted Japan's three-time Olympic champion gymnast Kōhei Uchimura, who wants the postponed Tokyo Olympics to go ahead but who acknowledges widespread scepticism in the country about organising a Games amidst a pandemic.

Polls in recent months have indicated widespread uncertainty on the topic among Japanese people.

"Unfortunately, 80 per cent of the Japanese don’t believe that the Tokyo Olympics can take place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," Uchimura told the Associated Press. "I would like people to change their minds from: We can’t hold the Olympics to - how can we do it?"

That switch in emphasis is explicitly underlined by the IOC, although its response - particularly after the gung-ho misjudgements about the feasibility of holding the Games last summer - is now carefully calibrated, and more cautious than that of the Tokyo 2020 President. It is, however, persistently upbeat.

IOC President Thomas Bach says Tokyo is the
IOC President Thomas Bach says Tokyo is the "best-prepared Olympic city" ©Getty Images

At a Tokyo 2020 seminar for Chefs de Mission last month, the IOC President Thomas Bach said in a recorded video message that the organisation was "working at full speed... to ensure the Games are fit for a post-coronavirus world".

He added that a series of countermeasures being devised for Tokyo 2020 will ensure the IOC and organisers are "prepared for safe Olympic Games... in whatever conditions the world will be in" in 2021.

"Even in these ever-changing times, many of the operation details that are on top of all Chefs de Mission minds are still being worked on," Bach said.

"But please rest assured that we are focused on developing a toolbox of COVID countermeasures for every possible scenario."

Last week, the perspective of Tokyo 2020 organisers and the IOC was altered by the news that, after global trials, a vaccine being developed by American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and BioNTech has initially been found to be 90 per cent effective in preventing people from getting the virus.

Bach, who has previously insisted a vaccine is not a "silver bullet" for the Games taking place, revealed the IOC is in talks with manufacturers and other health experts but claimed the organisation would not jump the queue ahead of those who need a vaccination most.

"The first wave of vaccination is - and this we are supporting very much - for the people in need, the high-risk groups," he said.

"It is for the nurses and for the medical doctors and for everybody who is keeping our societies alive. In this context, we will have further discussions with all the experts."

He added that he was "more and more confident" that a "reasonable number of spectators" will be allowed inside venues.

"How many and under which conditions depends on the future developments," Bach said.

Lucia Montanarella, who took over as head of Olympic Games media operations at the IOC in January of this year, last week offered a nice overview of the vexed situation.

"You can’t stop the waves," Montanarella said, "but you can learn how to surf."

Head of Olympic Games media operations Lucia Montanarella believes:
Head of Olympic Games media operations Lucia Montanarella believes: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf" ©Getty Images

To murder a metaphor, the IOC is currently seeking to ride the waves on a toolbox, with the ocean-going liner of a secure vaccine now visible on the horizon.

The IOC is currently working on four scenarios with regard to coronavirus and the Games - one projecting an improvement, two projecting the situation becoming worse either in Japan or globally, and another, situated between those extremes, which is being used as the base case.

This involves global health status reaching a general plateau in terms of new COVID-19 cases, although with the likely presence of some clusters in a number of hotspots. 

If the vaccine is available, it will "probably still be accessible mostly to the clinically vulnerable", according to the current assessment of Olympic Games associate director Pierre Ducrey.

Social distancing will still be in place, as will travel restrictions - but these would be "progressively relaxed" as the Games get closer, albeit with additional restraints for hotspots.

The base model foresees an economy that would be "moderately recovering", and also an increase in public confidence about being present at mass gatherings following successful recent trials held in Japan, which saw restrictions rise from 50 per cent to 80 per cent of capacity in selected stadiums.

So to the toolbox so beloved of Bach. The lid creaks open, and there are six main compartments - safe travel measures, social distancing, personal protective equipment and cleaning, testing and tracking, optimal use of any available vaccine and updating all involved with regard to best practice.

With regards to travel arrangements, Japan currently has a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals from most countries, but discussions are underway involving the IOC, Tokyo 2020 organisers and the Japanese government, about making restrictions "more flexible" for the Games.

Last Thursday (November 12), Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō revealed a plan accommodating the arrival of foreign spectators would be drawn up "by next spring", and he also confirmed athletes, coaches and officials would be exempt from Japan's 14-day isolation period.

"There is very positive news about athletes and the flexibility around quarantine," Ducrey said. "We are working with Tokyo 2020 to obtain flexibility from the authorities for all stakeholders and for media in particular."

It is confirmed that members of the media would need to undergo a COVID-19 test before leaving their home country, and a second test before entering Japan.

Testing before departure and upon arrival is likely to be standard practice for those accredited to attend the Games if Tokyo 2020 goes ahead as planned next summer ©Getty Images
Testing before departure and upon arrival is likely to be standard practice for those accredited to attend the Games if Tokyo 2020 goes ahead as planned next summer ©Getty Images

Much discussion is underway concerning how social-distancing measures will impact likely capacities in Games venues. Ducrey also observed that, while rules on social distancing may be easy to promote and define, "the real concern is people following them."

There is an obvious awareness of the need to avoid accredited personnel gathering in clusters that might potentially create surges in the virus. The intention is to create "playbooks" that will set out the policies and expectations likely to be involved.

One other area of concern identified is that of controlling access to the venues of those who have not been made aware of the protocols, namely guests.

In terms of cleanliness, the intention is to have high standards - but not necessarily more cleaning, as this would require more staff, and that in turn might compromise areas where the paramount importance is to restrict and control access. It will be "a fine balance".

Testing and tracking, and where necessary isolating those with COVID-19, will be a "central aspect" of the Tokyo 2020 operation and a crucial element in building confidence among all participants that they will be kept safe. Work is ongoing to make sure the latest and best technology will be used to ensure the most swift and thorough of operations.

With regard to emerging vaccine options, and how they might best be deployed, Ducrey added: "We are working very closely with the World Health Organization to make sure we have awareness of latest developments and also with platforms which are currently looking at distributing the vaccine globally as quickly as possible.

"The IOC is looking to try and make the vaccines available to as many people as possible within the accredited population.

"We are having very frequent conversations now with all the key players, including the manufacturers, to try and understand how we could develop a scheme that allows to make the vaccine available to as many people as possible…

"Having a vaccine would be a positive, but it’s not a must-do for the Games to take place."

IOC President Thomas Bach is due to meet  Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike tomorrow during his visit to Japan ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach is due to meet Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike tomorrow during his visit to Japan ©Getty Images

Meanwhile the "playbooks" of policy and protocols are due to be available in their first versions by January 2021. "They will offer a sense of what will be expected behaviour - and will be regularly updated," Ducrey added.

Meanwhile efforts on the Japanese side are being undertaken through a coronavirus countermeasures taskforce formed of officials from the Japanese Government, Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo 2020 which is hoping to have general guidelines available by the end of the year.

A Tokyo 2020 spokesperson acknowledged last week there was an awareness that the bulk of the media would not be able to come over two weeks early, and that all parties were "currently working to be more flexible".

Work was ongoing on the balance between reducing numbers in venues and allowing press access - with clear hints that the free coming and going involved in previous Games may not be the case in Tokyo.

While athletes will be expected to restrict themselves to Games transport options, members of the media are likely to have the option of taking public transport in an effort to ease restrictions upon them.

In terms of interviewing competitors, numerous options are being considered, including online access and the use of physical distancing and barriers in the process.

"At the moment we are working on a plan to deliver the Games services without a vaccine," the spokesperson said. 

"We are fully confident that we can do that… we feel we have all the tools to do the job. But obviously having access to a vaccine would be a big positive."

Bach, meanwhile, is visiting Tokyo to meet Suga and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike tomorrow.

"The message I want to deliver in Tokyo and to Japan and to the Japanese people," he said, "is that we are fully committed to the safe organisation of the Games."

Last week he commented: "Thanks to the outstanding work of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and all our Japanese partners, Tokyo continues to be the best-prepared Olympic city.

"The health and safety of all concerned has always been and remains our top priority.

"Because of the fast-changing situation we may not have all the answers to the operational questions that are on the top of your minds. But please rest assured that we are developing a toolbox of COVID countermeasures for every possible scenario.

"In this context the encouraging development in so-called rapid testing and vaccines gives all of us good reason for cautious optimism. These developments will greatly facilitate the safe organisation of the Games and give us additional countermeasures tools.

"In this way we are prepared for a safe Olympic Games whatever conditions the world will be facing next summer.

"Making the Olympic Games fit for the post-corona world also means we all have to adapt to the new environment. It will take flexibility, creativity and, yes, also sacrifices from all of us to overcome these challenges."