Alan Hubbard

It is surely the most agonising Question of Sport ever. Will Tokyo 2020, rescheduled for this summer, go ahead as planned? Or perhaps more pertinently should the Olympic and Paralympic Games now be abandoned as yet another victim of COVID-19?

It is certainly one Question of Sport we have yet to hear posed by the ever-jovial quiz mistress Sue Barker on the BBC programme of that name but it is certainly one I am frequently asked by friends and colleagues who, like me, have rather a lot of thinking and TV time during these seemingly endless lockdowns.

So, adopting the chin-stroking response of that other celebrated tele-host, the acerbic Jeremy Clarkson when asked by contestants if he can help with an answer in their quest to be a millionaire - here’s what I think.

Yes, they should go ahead - but with this proviso. The Games must be cut in half. That’s right, Tokyo should stage just 50 per cent of the scheduled programme. 

With the number of competitors kept at 5,000, sports limited to a maximum of 12 and suitably pruned to an agreed number of disciplines within them, stadiums at half capacity or less to enable appropriate social distancing and a reduced number of officials from overseas.

I am not sure how this might work with the 4,000 Paralympians but I have no doubt some agreement could be reached.

Half the Olympics means half the risk. Some might dismiss this idea as a fanciful piece of pie in the sky, but think about it. A mini Olympics - or with due deference to one of the Games’ principal sponsors, an Olympics Lite - would be more manageable in the present circumstances. 

Easier to stage and to televise within, say, a 10 day period incorporating the necessary anti-COVID measures such as daily testing. Less costly too.

Of course there will be howls of protest from those sports which have to be sidelined - and we can come to that later - but needs must when the pandemic drives.

Because of the virus and its worrying new mutations, and despite a late-starting vaccination programme, I doubt if the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would bet his Tea House of the August Moon on the Games actually taking place.

Our columnist has called for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to be halved - with the clock ticking down to the rescheduled start date of July 23 2021 ©Getty Images
Our columnist has called for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to be halved - with the clock ticking down to the rescheduled start date of July 23 2021 ©Getty Images

Even though a poll suggesting 80 per cent of Japanese want the Olympics cancelled, both he and the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach remain upbeat and sanguine about the prospects, as do some other sporting bigwigs including World Athletics President Lord Sebastian Coe.

Bach insists there is no Plan B – yet surely the current situation is Plan B if you accept that the intention of staging the Games as scheduled last summer was Plan A.

There are quite a few letters of the alphabet to run through yet, with suggestions that the Games could again be postponed until next year (totally impractical for the athletes and organisers) or held in Tokyo instead of Paris in 2024, with that event being pushed back to the Los Angeles slot in 2028, and Tokyo 2020 finally coming to fruition in 2032. I think it would take a formal United Nations resolution for that to happen.

So as I say it is probably the most vexing problem that sport has ever had to contend with, which is why I seriously think downsizing the Games for this year is worthy of serious consideration. Some may think it is a realistic blueprint for the future of an event that has ludicrously and vastly outgrown its original concept.

In any case we have to accept there is no way the whole world will be vaccinated against the virus by July 23, when the Games are due to begin. So anti-virus measures will still need to be in place. Even cut in half, they still will be the biggest sporting show on Earth.

And even if the Games were to be held in their entirety, against all the odds, there would be those countries who refused to participate for fear of a fresh spike during the event - though at the moment Britain, according to British Olympic Association chair Sir Hugh Robertson, is not among them. Like his predecessor Seb Coe, he remains "as confident as I can be" that "we shall see an Olympics this summer."

"Everything that I’m hearing at the moment is that there is a total determination on behalf of the IOC, Organising Committee and NOCs around the world to stage these Games and our athletes unanimously want to go."

His comments echo those of Team GB Chef de Mission Mark England, who says confidence in the Games going ahead on its original scale has remained "absolute from the outset."

But former London 2012 chief executive Sir Keith Mills is the latest figure to cast doubt over the Games saying it was "unlikely" that the event would be able to go ahead.

GB Olympic rowing legend Sir Matthew Pinsent became the highest-profile former athlete to call for a cancellation, saying the idea of thousands of people flying round the world to gather, unvaccinated, in one place, was "ludicrous."

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, pictured here during a visit to the National Stadium in Tokyo, has repeatedly said
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, pictured here during a visit to the National Stadium in Tokyo, has repeatedly said "there is no plan B" for this year's Olympics ©Getty Images

Tokyo, he suggested, should stage the Games in 2024 instead, with subsequent hosts Paris and Los Angeles both shifted back four years to accommodate the rejig.

However, both the IOC and the Games Organising Committee insist the prospect of another delay is not on the agenda, that they expect fans to be admitted to stadiums, and that an anti-virus vaccination may not be mandatory.

So far, Japan has escaped the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, with far fewer deaths than the tragic numbers suffered in other parts of the world.

Lord Coe remains adamant that the Games should proceed if necessary behind closed doors and "that would be better than no Olympics at all."

Maybe. But a reduced Games might be better still.

And so to the nitty gritty. In that event which sports should remain and which jettisoned?

No doubt there are sufficient sage voices within the IOC to dismiss vested interests and make a reasonable judgement in these exceptional circumstances.

Simply for the sake of argument here is my own suggestion of a Games with just a dozen sports. These would include core sports such as athletics (minus marathons), aquatics (including swimming and diving but not water polo), gymnastics and boxing.

Plus archery, judo, karate, taekwondo, weightlifting, wrestling, rowing, golf (where social distancing is inbuilt) and keeping a bit of fun and frivolity with beach volleyball.

Out would go all team sports with more than two participants on each side, and equestrian events, most ball games and shooting.

Incoming activities sport climbing and skateboarding would have to wait until Paris and beyond.

You can argue the toss about the rest and no doubt you will. But you must agree at least that half an Olympics is better than none.