David Owen

With heavy heart, I have decided not to attend the Tokyo Games.

This is partly because the risk of having to go into quarantine somewhere along the line, with uncertain financial and logistical repercussions, is not, in my judgement, completely negligible.

But it is also clear that the rules governing journalists’ movements during the event would not have permitted me to cover the Olympics in the way I normally do.

This has tended to involve deciding no more than a few hours ahead of time where to go next, and spending as much time as possible talking to people who are a) not athletes (or at least not athletes in full competition mode) and b) not journalists.

If the Games go ahead, and the now critical transport service is effective, then it looks like journalists will be OK to report on the sports events and associated press conferences in relatively orthodox manner, but to do little if anything else that would justify one’s presence on the ground.

That being the case, it is better to cede my place on this occasion to a straight-up sports reporter.

I should make clear at this point that I am not complaining - clearly strict control of movement is essential if an event as complex as the Olympics is not to augment the risk of coronavirus spreading.

I am, however, downhearted: Japan is a country I quickly fell in love with, somewhat against my expectations, while there for the 2002 World Cup.

An Olympic Games there, minus COVID, would have been an extraordinary and breathtaking cultural extravaganza.

I had been looking forward to experiencing and writing about it since 2013.

For all the human devastation it has caused, the pandemic has at least acted as a powerful agent for stripping away illusions.

As others have also commented, it has served to underline that, for all the deep and much ballyhooed historical roots, for all the talk of seeing humanity at its best, a 21st-century Olympics is above all an elaborate fund-raising exercise.

If the Tokyo Games do get under way as now planned on July 23, it will be first and foremost because the Olympic Movement and the globe-straddling bureaucratic infrastructure that underpins it requires the money the event will raise.

Our columnist says he has decided not to attend the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and rules covering journalists movements around the city ©Getty  Images
Our columnist says he has decided not to attend the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and rules covering journalists movements around the city ©Getty Images

I certainly would not condemn it for that: the prosecution of all top-flight sport requires money, and the Olympic distribution model, questionable as it may be, is not just about making the best richer.

One would just sometimes appreciate a little less guff and a little more honesty.

It is starting to occur to me that Tokyo 2020 may change the Olympics more profoundly than most of us have yet realised.

This is because of a combination of the pandemic and the rapidly growing capabilities of streaming technology.

Tokyo may demonstrate beyond question a) that pictures of what is happening can be beamed around the world with far fewer technical bodies on the ground - and I mean far fewer - than suspected hitherto and b) that media can conduct interviews and "attend" press conferences reasonably satisfactorily from thousands of miles away.

If events take place, furthermore, in empty venues, as it is widely suspected that they will, then Tokyo 2020 will be experienced, "consumed" if you must, almost entirely via digitised images.

Throw in the small detail that the event will be taking place in a different year to that denoted by the Tokyo 2020 brand and you can appreciate how the link between the Games and a particular time and place will be weaker than ever.

Of course, this will be a one-off - at least we hope it will.

But the Games have been an exclusively screen-based experience for most people outside the bubble for decades now.

If sections of the Olympic bubble themselves start to be dispersed, or rather cease gathering in the host-city - and company accountants are likely to be most appreciative of the cost savings gleaned from having fewer personnel in Tokyo - then, for one thing, the importance of putting most venues close together would be diminished considerably.

You start to wonder whether eventually event locations might be determined by bidding contests among existing venues for specific groups of events, irrespective of geographical location.

With regard to the struggling Winter Olympics, indeed, I wonder if that day might not be a lot closer than we think, permitting the Games to take place at the best bobsled run/curling rink/ice-hockey complex in the world, wherever each happens to be.

Tokyo 2020 may change the Olympics more profoundly than any of us realised, according to our columnist ©Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 may change the Olympics more profoundly than any of us realised, according to our columnist ©Getty Images

As someone who believes that nothing about the Olympics is more valuable than the opportunity for cultural cross-pollination that it provides, I hope that this sort of physical fragmentation does not materialise.

But some trends were already pointing in this direction pre-COVID.

The geographical footprint of Tokyo 2020, with baseball in Fukushima, cycling in Izu and football in Sapporo, was always going to be relatively large; and Paris 2024, lest we forget, has seen fit to site an event slap bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I also wonder what proportion of athletes from wealthier sports and countries have followed the Olympic ideal in recent Games to the extent of lodging with peers in the main Olympic Village for the full two weeks, or as good as; I suspect it is lower than most imagine.

This, come to think of it, is the sort of data that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission might usefully be charged with compiling.

Adoption of a location-neutral venue-selection approach ought, moreover, to ensure that no new specifically Olympic sports infrastructure need ever be built again, as well as enabling the IOC to discontinue the payment of hefty host-city subsidies.

Hosting fees are, after all, a lucrative profit- rather than cost-centre for many International Federations and other owners of lesser sports events.

The world, though, it seems to me, is more than usually in a confused - and confusing - state at present, and the Olympic world is no exception.

While it has not been inconvenienced by the sort of public scrutiny to which it would have been subject under the transparent bidding process that the IOC has abandoned, Brisbane 2032 strikes me as a reassuringly old-fashioned Olympic project.

By this I mean that the Games are seemingly to be used as justification and immovable deadline for a major infrastructure upgrade and quite possibly a AUD$1 billion (£552 million/$780 million/€645 million) stadium rebuild.

In this, as in so many other ways, then, the Olympic Movement’s future direction of travel seems all but impossible to foretell with any degree of confidence.

What I do know is that I will be observing the next chapter from a distance.