Coronavirus threat looms large as Tokyo prepares to stage controversial Games

Announcing the unprecedented postponement of the Tokyo Games in March last year, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach expressed his hope that the re-arranged Games would serve as a “beacon of hope” in a post-pandemic world.

Fast forward 16 months and the extent of Bach’s delusion has been laid bare by successive states of emergency and surging infection rates; by strict quarantine procedures, spectator bans and local pleas for media, officials and sponsors to steer well clear.

Almost by the day, these Games have become tougher to justify. Burdened by the prospect of losses in the tens of billions of dollars, the IOC has waded on with its triumphalist rhetoric, simultaneously appearing to shut its ears to the kind of long-term consequences that could cause the movement irreparable damage.

Thomas Bach file photo
Thomas Bach’s hopes that the Tokyo Games will represent “a beacon of hope” appear misplaced (Mike Egerton/PA)

‘Legacy’, usually the IOC’s favourite buzz-word, has been conspicuously absent from its vocabulary as it faces up to the realisation that the measure of success for these Games will not reside in local activity data, but in the size of the residual virus waves once the Olympics caravan has struck camp and set its sights on Paris in three years’ time.

If such a conclusion seems desperately harsh on the athletes, who have trained through lockdowns over an extended cycle for what is in many cases a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it is an inescapable fact that sporting ambitions must no longer be the prime consideration. Bill Shankly’s famous decree is proven wrong once more: no sport is more important than life and death.

Tortuous plans to mitigate such bleak eventualities have left Tokyo staging a ghost Games: always assuming they avoid the quarantine lottery, victorious athletes will raise their arms in empty arenas, serenaded only by the screams of socially-distanced commentators and a smattering of applause from a bunch of blokes from Coca-Cola.

Athletes have been warned they face deportation if they stray from strict bubbles. Media and officials have been told they will be named and shamed on social media for transgressing often-contradictory quarantine rules. Fans have been asked to stay away from public events such as the marathon. Even the torch relay has been taken off-road.

If it all seems increasingly absurd, the bottom line is, of course, that money talks. Foreign visitors might have been barred, but otherwise precious few dispensations have been made. The schedule remains the same; scores of thousands of athletes and other Olympic personnel will still descend on a city facing rising virus numbers and a double-vaccination rate of less than 10 per cent.

Outside Japan, the moral dilemma will doubtless be mitigated by unflinchingly positive rights-holder narratives, and no end of cutely-contrived camera angles. Throw in some piped-in crowd noise and perhaps a power ballad over the opening credits, and it could become all too easy to pretend that these are just another Games shimmering with big-name stars and emotional moments.

European Athletics Championships 2018 – Day Five
Dina Asher-Smith could claim Olympic gold in an empty arena (Martin Rickett/PA)

Dina Asher-Smith, Jade Jones, Adam Peaty, the all-conquering Kennys and boxer Pat McCormack are among the Team GB stars with the best chances of clambering upon their respective podiums and milking the applause of the non-existent crowds, as funding body UK Sport promotes what it calls an “holistic” approach to medal targets.

Given the circumstances, it represents a timely shift in focus and means overall British medal hopes can satisfactorily be pitched closer to the 51 achieved in Beijing in 2008, rather than the over-optimistic tally of 67 earned in the after-glow Games of Rio five years ago.

Traditionally successful sports like cycling, rowing and in particular gymnastics are expected to experience some degree of a short-fall, but medal numbers are likely to be sustained to some extent in sports such as shooting, where Seonaid McIntosh, Matt Coward-Holley and Amber Hill all stand strong chances.

2018 Commonwealth Games – Day Four
British shooting stars like Amber Hill could bolster the medal tally (Martin Rickett/PA)

Bach and the IOC are banking on there being enough seminal moments amongst them to disguise the desperate reality of a Games played out behind closed doors. In doing so they are taking a calculated gamble, the implications of which could yet make even the cost of cancellation seem like loose change.

Never mind beacons of hope and triumphs of human spirit, Tokyo is a Games that needs to get done. A decent legacy would be no discernible rise in the city’s infection rates – the alternative is the kind of enduring crisis that risks tarnishing the image of the Olympic rings for good.