Nancy Gillen

Just under two months ago, I wrote a blog on the emergence of coronavirus as a new challenge for the organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Back then, just under 8,000 people had been infected, with the majority from China. This number has now risen to more than 622,000 and is affecting 199 countries and territories. And of course, Tokyo 2020 has been postponed.

Few would have predicted that eight weeks on from that blog, the Games would not be taking place from July 24 to August 9 of this year. It looked likely that a few Olympic qualifiers would have to be rearranged, or additional health safety measures would have to be put in place, but not a complete postponement.

Such has been the nature of the past few weeks on Planet Earth. The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented action which had been nearly impossible to foresee.

Subsequently, there needs to be some caution in rescheduling Tokyo 2020. Insidethegames revealed yesterday that a decision on the new dates for the Games would be made within the next three weeks. 

Such a timeline is understandable, allowing International Federations to provide clarification on an updated qualification process. Athletes also need to know when they are going to compete in order to organise training programmes.

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori does not seem keen on hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in spring ©Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori does not seem keen on hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in spring ©Getty Images 

In a discussion with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the majority of the 33 Federations on the Tokyo 2020 programme claimed preference for a rearranged Games to be staged between July and August, although some suggested dates in April and May.

The prospect of a spring Olympics in Japan has been mooted and while this would require rescheduling of other sporting events, it potentially could avoid the high summer temperatures in Tokyo, which had forced organisers to invest in heat countermeasures for the Games.

IOC President Thomas Bach has said the postponed Olympics “will not be restricted to the summer months”, although Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori seems keener to have the Games between June and September.

Regardless, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 must keep in mind that coronavirus may still be a threat next year.

Although the situation is uncertain, it is clear that coronavirus will not be going away quickly. It is suggested by the World Health Organisation that a vaccine is between 12 to 18 months away, while the building up of natural immunity could take around two years.

It is likely then, that the current restrictive measures placed on many countries around the world could continue at some extent for a while. Even if they are relaxed, what will happen when millions of people go back to normal life? What is going to happen in winter, when a resurgence of coronavirus has been predicted by some?

It is unknown how long restrictive measures put in place to contain coronavirus will last ©Getty Images
It is unknown how long restrictive measures put in place to contain coronavirus will last ©Getty Images 

Who can say whether people will be able to mingle freely by September, or whether unlimited travel will be accessible by Christmas? The thought of still being under strict measures at that point is daunting, but not many thought Europe would be under lockdown just two months ago.

It is interesting that Bach cited the increase of coronavirus cases in Africa as the reason for the postponement. “We learned about the new alarming figures of the virus spreading around the world, particularly in Africa, where many countries were affected and obviously at the beginning of an outbreak,” he said in a letter to IOC members. If such countries are only at the start of the coronavirus outbreaks, then they will be emerging from the crisis further down the line.

Bear in mind that it is not necessarily about the state of the world during the time of the Games, but more about the months beforehand. Athletes began to revolt against the IOC because they were unable to train and prepare safely now. If they are still not able to visit gyms or travel to qualifying events three months before the rescheduled Olympics and Paralympics, what is to say that history will not repeat itself? 

IOC President Thomas Bach was criticised for his handling of the postponement of Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach was criticised for his handling of the postponement of Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

All of these factors makes the staging of an Olympics in the months of March, April and May risky, especially if it is true that coronavirus may come back in winter. Even if Tokyo 2020 is rescheduled to next summer, it still must be acknowledged that the pandemic could very well remain an obstacle to preparations. 

The IOC have been heavily criticised for the way they handled the eventual postponement of the Games, with Bach often lacking transparency as the crisis worsened. Only last month, he grew frustrated at a press conference when journalists understandably focused their questions on coronavirus.

Now is a chance to appear proactive and honest, instead of once again pretending that a pandemic will have no affect on the Games. Up until now, there has been little mention that coronavirus will still be an issue at a rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

It is understandable that the IOC would not want to create more uncertainty, especially given the daunting task that looms for everyone in the Olympic Movement. They risk looking off the pace once again, however, if they do not at least acknowledge the remaining threat of coronavirus. 

There is not much point in predicting what is to come in the months ahead, but one line from my blog in January is definitely still applicable. "No one is sure how the coronavirus crisis is going to play out, and it is this uncertainty that Tokyo 2020 are going to have to deal with."