Michael Pavitt ©ITG

A look back at the final day of the 2019 Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly provides an insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the Olympic Movement in such a short period of time. 

Speakers in Doha were looking forward to the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympics and the summer version in Dakar in 2022. South Korean pop sensation PSY, known for his smash hit Gangnam Style, was mentioned as Seoul prepared to host the next General Assembly. 

Fast forward to today and the two-year anniversary of Lausanne 2020 is now on the horizon. The delayed Dakar Games are five years away and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are in Crete for the start of the General Assembly today. There is a lot to catch up on. 

ANOC's Acting President Robin Mitchell has been leading the organisation during its attempts to steer NOCs through the challenges posed by COVID-19, to ensure their participation at both the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic Games. 

He is "acting" as President after stepping in to cover influential sports kingmaker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah in 2018, due to the Kuwaiti's legal problems. 

In September, there was a huge development when Sheikh Ahmad was found guilty of forgery in a Geneva court and sentenced to at least 13 months in prison. 

The Sheikh denies wrongdoing and is appealing, with the situation due to be addressed in Crete. But it looks like Mitchell's already lengthy stay in "temporary" charge will be continuing for a while yet. 

This year's General Assembly falls close to the midway point between Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022, which are separated by just six months. It will offer a chance to perform something akin to a health check on one of the Olympic Movement's key stakeholder groups. 

"It was very disappointing that we could not host the ANOC General Assembly last year, but it was the right decision to protect the safety of the NOC family," Mitchell tells insidethegames. "Now, after a two-year gap, we are more excited than ever to host the General Assembly and to have the opportunity to meet with NOCs and discuss the most pressing issues they are facing.  

Robin Mitchell has been holding the fort as the ANOC's Acting President since 2018 ©Getty Images
Robin Mitchell has been holding the fort as the ANOC's Acting President since 2018 ©Getty Images

"We worked hard with the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) to host the ANOC General Assembly in Seoul as originally planned, but it was mutually agreed that due to the quarantine restrictions caused by COVID-19 it would not be feasible to host the event this year.  

"We are grateful to the KSOC for their hard work and commitment to hosting the General Assembly and hope we will be able to stage the event in Seoul in the future.   

"The ANOC General Assembly is always a very special gathering as the biggest coming together of the Olympic Movement outside of the Olympic Games. It was very special being able to meet with NOCs during Tokyo 2020 after so long apart, and we are greatly looking forward to meeting many more in Crete." 

More than 150 NOCs are expected to be represented here in person, but Mitchell acknowledged that several NOCs will be unable to travel to Greece. Plans are in place to allow them to participate virtually.  

The General Assembly following an Olympic Games typically offers a chance for celebration and reflection. The gathering in Crete is likely to follow the same path, with a record 93 NOCs leaving Tokyo 2020 with medals to their names.  

There was particular cause for celebration for Turkmenistan, Burkina Faso and San Marino which earned their maiden Olympic medals. The Philippines, Qatar and Bermuda won gold for the first time. 

Mitchell believes this broad success highlights the universality of the Games, as well as the continued development of sport across the world. The Fijian, who saw his nation defend the men's rugby sevens title and win bronze in the women's event, believes Tokyo 2020 will be remembered for its celebration of humanity as well as its sporting stars. 

"For every Olympic medal or broken record, there were countless more moments of friendship and sportsmanship from our inspiring athletes," Mitchell said. "The Games combined thrilling sport with unforgettable moments of solidarity and respect. NOCs and their athletes were at the very heart of this." 

Mitchell praised the contribution of Tokyo 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Federations (IFs) for ensuring the Games took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Events were largely held behind closed doors under Government restrictions. 

The greatest praise was reserved for host nation Japan, which was able to stage an Olympics like no other. 

"We will be forever grateful to our hosts for providing the platform for the world's athletes to compete in a safe and secure environment," Mitchell said. "At a time of great difficulty, the Games brought joy and hope to communities around the world." 

The work NOCs carried out to help their athletes attend the Games was hailed as "tremendous" by Mitchell. It is hard to disagree. 

A total of 206 nations were represented at Tokyo 2020 - including the "neutral" Russian Olympic Committee and the Refugee Olympic Team. The now-suspended North Korea was ultimately the only absentee, following the rapid withdrawal and re-entry of Guinea.  

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah was found guilty of forgery in a Geneva court, but is appealing ©Getty Images
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah was found guilty of forgery in a Geneva court, but is appealing ©Getty Images

Given the lack of global travel and restrictions during the pandemic, the attendance figure is staggering. 

NOCs bore a considerable burden to achieve this, and worked with their Governments to ensure their participation while managing quarantine periods both in Tokyo and at home. They also needed to ensure that people acted responsibly while in Japan. 

ANOC provided $11.65 million (£8.4 million/€10 million) through its Tokyo 2020 fund, which Mitchell says helped NOCs with the "exceptional costs relating to athlete preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and the COVID-19 crisis in general". The fund supplemented the $150 million (£108 million/€128 million) set aside for NOCs, IFs and other recognised organisations by the IOC. 

The impact of COVID-19 is still being felt by NOCs, and the ANOC General Assembly will provide another opportunity to highlight concerns. 

"COVID-19 remains a key challenge for all NOCs and the Olympic Movement is still adapting to this new reality," Mitchell said.  

"We saw this very successfully at Tokyo 2020 and there will also be challenges to overcome in NOC preparations for Beijing 2022. We will continue to provide the best possible support to NOCs to help them overcome these challenges. 

"COVID-19 has caused significant financial challenges for NOCs. With events either delayed or postponed, it has had a knock-on effect in terms of sponsorship, broadcast and other sources of revenue.  

"ANOC conducted a survey of all NOCs during the height of the pandemic and financial challenges were the biggest concern raised. That was why ANOC used the money saved from not hosting the General Assembly last year to provide the Tokyo 2020 fund for NOCs. 

"However, it is not just financial assistance ANOC has provided.  

"We continued to represent the voice of NOCs within the Olympic Movement, notably on the Coordination Commissions for Tokyo 2020 and the upcoming Olympic Games, to ensure their interests were heard."

Mitchell also said efforts had been made to boost the social media output of NOCs across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. A dashboard and social media handbook has been created to offer best-practice solutions.  

Increased social media activity is seen as crucial for NOCs, to ensure they can engage with athletes and fans, as well as potentially lucrative sponsors. 

IOC President Thomas Bach suggested earlier this year that the short turnaround between the Summer and Winter Olympics could have advantages, with momentum from Tokyo carrying through to Beijing. 

The short gap has provided challenges for NOCs at an unprecedented time, however, and they will eagerly be awaiting the publication of COVID-19 protocols for the Winter Olympics.

Robin Mitchell, seen here with IOC President Thomas Bach, right, has confirmed he will stand for the ANOC Presidency on a permanent basis next year ©Getty Images
Robin Mitchell, seen here with IOC President Thomas Bach, right, has confirmed he will stand for the ANOC Presidency on a permanent basis next year ©Getty Images

Mitchell said ANOC has been in contact with NOCs to support their preparations for the Games, and its technical working group has regularly checked in with the Beijing 2022 Organising Committee and the IOC Coordination Commission. 

"The biggest challenge the NOCs have been facing is that it has not been possible to visit Beijing and the venues because of COVID-19 and that is a big part of the preparations for the athletes," Mitchell said. 

"The main issues would be related to travel and the entry requirements to China, qualifying competitions, overseas guests at the Games and the COVID-19 protocol for the 2022 Winter Olympics. We will hopefully also receive an update on the situation at the General Assembly." 

As well as supporting the staging of the Summer and Winter Olympics, ANOC is seeking to push ahead with future editions of its World Beach Games following the first staging in 2019. 

The Games have had a difficult start to life as a multi-sport event, with Doha parachuted in as a replacement host when initial plans in San Diego collapsed. The organisation opted to postpone the second edition from 2021 to 2023. 

ANOC has announced a core programme of 10 disciplines for the 2023 and 2025 editions of the Games, which has a focus on sustainable beach and water sports. There is also the aim to deliver on a commitment to youth and inclusion. 

Open water swimming, beach water polo, beach soccer, beach handball, individual kata karate, kite foil, beach tennis, aquathlon, 4x4 beach volleyball and beach wrestling are the core disciplines on the programme. Possible additions could be made when host nations are confirmed. 

"We have an exciting core sports programme and by confirming the programme now we are giving athletes, NOCs and IFs greater certainty and time to plan," Mitchell said. "We have developed enhanced working relationships with the IFs which will aid preparations for the Games and ensure we deliver the very best competitions.   

"We created the Games with athletes and NOCs in mind and so we need to make sure it delivers for them and of course for IFs. The Games provides a unique opportunity for NOCs to engage new athletes, new sports and a new generation of fans."

Mitchell admitted that ANOC was fortunate when experienced host Qatar stepped in at short notice. The organisation now plans to use extra preparation time for subsequent editions. 

The ANOC World Beach Games launched in Doha in 2019 ©Getty Images
The ANOC World Beach Games launched in Doha in 2019 ©Getty Images

ANOC would like to announce candidates for the next World Beach Games in Crete, with the bid process launched following Tokyo 2020. Hong Kong is expected to be among the contenders.

ANOC has said sustainability and youth will be key factors in determining hosts for the Games. 

"We want the Games to be flexible to the host city and sustainability is a core pillar of the event," Mitchell said. 

"The Games rely on nature and it is our responsibility to leave minimal impact. We therefore would look to partner with our host cities to develop a Games which is fun, youth-focused and relaxed, but is also sustainably aligned with the city. 

"There will be the option to add additional sports in agreement between ANOC and the respective Organising Committee. 

"This will allow the programme to be tailored to the trends and cultures of each host country, ensuring a unique feel for each Games."

The awarding of the World Beach Games, and the return of a largely in-person ANOC General Assembly, could be viewed as key milestones as the Olympic Movement seeks to fully emerge from the pandemic. 

ANOC and its members will hope to look back on the General Assembly in Crete as an event which heralded a return to normality.