Three weeks until the ranking round begins (oh, and a little something called the opening ceremony) – time for a round up of everything that has appeared in the last week.
Pics via KAA
The KAA shared photos of the training venue they have set up at the national Olympic sport centre in Jincheon. As with several previous Olympics they have built a kind of facsimile of the finals arena for their charges to train on. The enormous expense this must have entailed gives an idea of the resources that go into protecting the biggest South Korean Olympic medal ‘banker’ of all. It obviously makes for good, very visual publicity for the NOC as well.
Although I was also wondering: is it really worth it? If you’re that good, shouldn’t you be able to turn up to any field and deliver the goods? I guess this piece of theatre has worked so far, so they are hoping it will work again. And they can practice against each other; let’s face it, the chances of them having to compete against each other in the last three rounds are pretty high. This year, they seem to have skipped the traditional ‘training in a baseball stadium‘ which characterised previous buildups. Maybe they’ve avoided some of the more tedious publicity work this time round.
Did you know you can donate directly to help Japanese athletes? If you use Visa, they’ll match it. I suppose I wasn’t expecting Japanese sports to be funded quite so directly.
Perhaps more NOCs should have the digital begging bowl out. Over at Team GB, they seem to prefer you buy something from the gift shop. I mean, these T-shirts are pretty boss:
They also have an ‘Archery’ T-shirt, with an extremely abstract design on the front. I guess it’s supposed to be a sight:
Despite a high-profile announcement re: spectators – the plan was to cap venue attendance at 50% of capacity or 10,000 – whichever is the greater – there now seems to still be a threat of holding the whole thing behind closed doors. The impact on archery wouldn’t be too great, the impact on the athletics stadium (capacity 68,000) will be enormous.
There will apparently be a final decision on Monday. This is on the back of mixed news re: COVID in Japan. A vaccination programme has finally started gaining momentum, although the famed ‘Delta variant’ seems to be going around already. Once it’s in, it’s not getting out. The worrying case of an athlete from Uganda testing positive on arrival in Japan, after apparently passing a COVID test and being fully vaccinated, is either an outlier or a worrying harbinger of what is to come in the next few weeks, as 60,000 or so athletes, journos, technicians, broadcasters, judges, coaches and federation wonks begin to descend on Tokyo. This bell-end isn’t helping, either. There was also some more news about beer and condoms.
Yahoo News! shared a piece detailing the privations that journalists will have to face when reporting from Tokyo; broadly, you’re not allowed to go anywhere or do anything at all, on pain of having your accreditation revoked and/or being thrown out of the country – not even walking. This will be enforced by a tracker app on your phone:
Daniel Castro has been selected for the single men’s spot for Spain. A lot of people thought that Pablo Acha would be going, as he is, y’know, the new European Champion, but apparently the selection was based on World Cup placings. Castro paid a lengthy tribute to Acha, and several other people on Facebook, which is a lovely read in translation.
There has been a softening of the policy that forbade athletes to take young children “when necessary” to Tokyo. This is of course far too late to help the relevant parents and children, including Naomi Folkard, who had already made extensive plans:
National Olympic kits are being revealed, if they haven’t been already. I usually enjoy the quadrennial fashion sniping – and the apparently post-ironic Canadian kit needs discussing – but there’s something I really like about the South African kit. It looks so casual, and so.. normcore. It represents what a lot of us have been doing for a year: lounging around. It doesn’t feel the need for a grandiose national statement. It’s very on brand for right now.
With the final, semi-dignified scramble for archery places in Paris complete, the recriminations can begin. The three-day qualifier ended up awarding 14 women’s places and 16 men’s places, with the last individual places scrapped out among the smaller archery nations and the handful of big ones who had come up empty-handed in one column. The men’s individual qualifier tournament was eventually won by the bear-like figure of Galzan Bazarzhapov, a man with such presence it seemed surprising he hadn’t simply willed himself onto the Games bill already. The women’s was won by the surprise finalist of Guatemala, the intimidatingly-named Madalina Amaistroaie of Romania. Both might be worth backing for a longshot podium place in Tokyo if they can maintain the level. It’s always a huge if.
The team competitions on Saturday and Sunday saw the USA men’s and women’s teams go through. Brady Ellison, probably still the favourite for the Paris World Cup event that begins tomorrow, opened the week by telling Fortune magazine that he had decided not to get vaccinated, and then, surprisingly, was perhaps the only USA man to produce a single really bad shot in competition. The USA women were perhaps less favoured to go through, but somehow edged out Turkey in a match that came down to literally a single millimetre.
The Indian women’s team, despite a chart-topping qualification from Deepika Kumari, went down against Colombia, putting a plug in a relentless series of hype pieces in the Indian media and starting a different, familiar torrent of snippy diatribes about three women who simply Should Have Done Better. Given they failed to get through in Den Bosch because of a minor technical problem with one archer which sunk the boat, hyping them up as the team to beat was always a bad idea.
No archery nation on earth puts such media pressure on their archers to live up to an essentially impossible ideal, no archery nation on earth has such an impossibly chaotic administration for the international sport, and it’s always, always dumped on the women – going back a long way. (Note that India is the worst G20 country in which to be a woman).
To be honest, the draw wasn’t kind and if India had got past Colombia they would have had to have faced either France or Spain (in the end, Spain). It was a big ask. Kumari seems to have developed a thicker skin in the last few years, luckily. If she finishes, as she may well do, off the podium in Tokyo and without a team to hide behind, she will certainly need it.
Italy avoided a catastrophe as their women’s team just scraped through in the last-chance match on Sunday, after the men’s team gave a distinctly lacklustre performance to go down to a well-organised but unfancied Indonesia, who deserved their team spots. After Italy left empty-handed from Rio – when a minimum two medals would have been expected – not sending a full team from one of the largest archery behemoths points perhaps to some difficulties somewhere down the line. Mauro Nespoli looked uncomfortable in the talismanic anchor role. Italy lost their way in Paris. The women only just found their way out again.
There were many other losers from which much more was expected. The German men’s team, going out to a patchy Ukraine. The Russian men’s team – missing for a second Olympics in a row. The French women, who seemed to have engaged the force field repelling arrows from the gold.
Of course, none of these teams have or will have faced any of the three biggest Asian teams in competition this year before Tokyo, and who knows what will happen when they do. The Asia Cup this year was essentially a domestic Korean competition which invited Japan and Bangladesh along for some company, and didn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about Korea – except perhaps half a hint that Kang Chae Young might not be the strong individual favourite. There is little to no data on how good China or Chinese Taipei are this year, although we know they are probably up to the task.
China probably underperformed last time out in Rio, and arguably Chinese Taipei too. Individually Taipei should have been pushing a round or two further, and the women’s team should really have been facing the ladies in white in the final, not the semi. (Lei Chien Ying was the weak link of the team back in 2016). By the final, Korea basically knew they’d got it, only having to get past a very patchy Russia.
Still, the Chinese Taipei women, who conquered Korea in Den Bosch and a few years before that at the Universiade in 2015, remain, in my opinion, the only team capable of beating Korea – and it won’t happen in the semi-final.
The way Taipei are going to beat Korea is by qualifying the team in second (not fourth, like in Rio) and absolutely destroying their side of the bracket, by being organised and looking sharp and terrifying at every opportunity. Then, when they are all standing waiting to go on for the final, perhaps a tiny nugget of fear might be developing under white hats.
Just imagine. Being the first Korean women’s team to come home with silver. Silver. I mean, it would be better to get knocked out in the first round than come home with team silver. The humiliation.
Yes, I’m speculating. But I got to see the Korean women’s team at the same moment in Rio, and they were nervous. The butterflies were there, if not big ones. They knew they only had to give an average performance. And in the end, it wasn’t spectacular (especially compared to the men’s team), but it was enough. And Russia were pretty bad. Taipei may be much better. And the niggling doubt of Den Bosch may return.
It can get worse. Several people in the know claimed to have seen Choi Misun visibly shaking with nerves in Rio in the individual rounds. Jang Min Hee, the newest and least known member of the Korean women, doesn’t seem to be immune:
All three Korean women are better archers on a technical and athletic level than every other woman who will take the field in Yumenoshima. But that still doesn’t guarantee they are going to win. If they lose it, it will be lost in the wings – not on the stage.
The Tokyo 2020 travails rumble on. I ranted on about the wider issues last time. This time we have problems with several nations – including the UK – who have been marked out with the worst kind of corona lurgy and have to do special measures to be let into Japan. The current document floating around is asking that athletes, officials and press from India have to do seven PCR tests in the seven days before the Games. Seven. In a row. (Never mind that apparently in India there is barely anywhere to even get same day PCR tests done). Travellers from the UK to Japan have to merely produce three negative PCR tests in the three days before they travel – these cost, at my local centre, £130 a go for same-day tests.
The era of dumbass guides to archery at the Olympics has arrived. Check out this one from Reuters. A typical entry in such a field, it finishes a reasonably accurate cribbed technical summary with a speculative load of total bullshit.
It’s 45 days to go before one of the strangest and most beleaguered Olympic Games of our lifetimes takes place.
For 95.5 percent of us, across the globe, watching it on TV is the only way we will ever experience it; just half a percent of the Olympic audience will ever see an Olympic event live. The TV audience is paramount, and the broadcasters have the final say on all kinds of things to do with the Summer and Winter Games.
For many people watching; will it be very different? With the camera angles changed to de-emphasise just how few people are in the venues (exactly how many will be there is still unclear), and crowd noise undoubtedly dubbed on, it will be, for many people, a very similar experience.
The revenue generated from selling the TV rights funds the IOC, and (as the IOC very much like to point out) funds all kinds of Olympic sports too, including much of the operating budget of World Archery and many other national and international federations. Much of the Olympic sporting landscape in the modern era relies on this revenue, and ultimately the Olympics supports an ecosystem hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide.
I don’t need to recount the events of the last 16 or so months; they have impacted every single one of us. The rescheduled Summer Olympics, delayed from 2020, were intended to be held in a world that had brought the COVID pandemic under control. When they were postponed, there was an optimism that Tokyo 2020 would go ahead in some kind of relative ‘normality’. Of course, that’s not the case. The Western world is a shifting mess of lockdowns, vaccination programs, third, fourth and fifth waves of variant viruses, quarantine procedures, strained public health systems, and all the rest that the coronavirus has dragged along with it on its never-ending journey around the well-connected world.
The Olympics ultimately relies on certainty; it’s an (almost) immovable feast. The incredulous full-steam-ahead response as the virus took hold in spring last year was only stopped by the announcement that many major nations would officially not send a squad, beginning the snowball process that led to postponement.
The IOC had good reason to be confident, apparently, the start time of an Olympic event has never moved before, and it has been 76 years since the last cancellation, due to war in 1944. Viruses had threatened before, and been found wanting.
The modern Games is now so big and so complicated and so expensive partly because it is has to begin on a particular date. Most large public projects are not delivered on schedule. The Olympics is, and if one aspect of it is not on track, the only solution is to throw immense amounts of resources at it until it is. Many aspects of Rio 2016, not helped by major budget problems and a general Brazilian disposition to do things at the last minute, were barely finished in time. (The 2016 Paralympics almost didn’t take place at all.)
As of this writing, a narrative has developed in the press that the Japanese government and the IOC are determined to press on with the Games in the teeth of a uncertain pandemic and hugely negative public opinion. Most people have cited a a poll (originally commissioned by newspaper Kyodo News) which showed that 35.3% of people were in favour of cancelling it, and 44.8% were in favour of postponing it once more. (Never mind that postponing it again has been categorically ruled out by all as politically, logistically, and financially impossible.)
This has been conflated by several other media outlets as ‘80% of the Japanese public want Games cancelled.’ Public opinion not being behind the Games beforehand is a distinct feature of the recent Olympic landscape, London 2012 being a prime example. Opinion polls are not a good guide to Olympic futures.
Much of the focus in the Japanese press is the claim that the 60,000 or so athletes, journalists, technicians, broadcasters, judges, coaches and federation people pitching up will be bringing a bunch of coronavirus variants to their islands, turning the Olympics into a superspreader event. Incidentally, this number of ‘essential personnel’ is down from the normal Olympic overseas attendance of around 180,000 – which gives you an idea of just how many hangers-on there normally are.
None of these articles acknowledge the extensive steps being taken to specifically make sure that this is not the case, as detailed in the much-vaunted (but under-promoted) IOC ‘playbooks‘ for all attendees. No one going will be admitted into Japan if they haven’t had two doctor-certified negative COVID tests in the preceding three days. No one going will be allowed to go sightseeing, use public transport, go into a bar or a restaurant, or indeed, do anything apart from go between hotel and venue to work or compete (denied of all overseas revenue, Tokyo’s hoteliers and restauranteurs are unsurprisingly furious and are adding to the cancellation chorus).
The IOC hasn’t covered itself in glory here; sending John Coates, one of its blunter instruments, out to announce that the Games could be held even if Japan was under a state of emergency, which only ramped up the chorus to get rid of it. It seems like a lot of the gung-ho rhetoric from all participants is to not let a single crack appear that might offer the ‘let’s-cancel-it’ gang a way in.
Also, none of the current press articles are also calling for the cancellation of the PGA tour, or Wimbledon, or the football Euros, or the Tour de France, or any of the many other sporting events due to take place this summer. None of them points out the large number of sporting events that have already taken place without incident (none of which is nearly as complex as an Olympics, of course).
But voices as loud as the New York Times have decided to floridly jump on the bandwagon anyway: “The I.O.C. oversees the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructure in the world. The group appears to have fallen under the spell of its own congenital impunity. Pressing ahead with the Olympics risks drinking poison to quench our thirst for sport. The possibility of a superspreader catastrophe is not worth it for an optional sporting spectacle.”
“Were not the Olympics supposed to be a festival of peace? … It begins with tenaciously engaging in dialogue with people who hold diverse views. If we abandon this process, then the Olympics have no meaning.”
“The opposite of peace is a hard-line, stubborn approach based on the view that ‘people may be saying all kinds of things, but once the Olympics start it’ll be fine. What will these Olympics be for and for whom?”
“I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel. It would require too much energy to make and follow through with such a decision. We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now.”
“We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not.”
The problem is that “engaging in dialogue with people who hold diverse views.” is a very reasonable thing to do during the bidding and planning phase of a Games. When the chips are down and you’ve got to execute the operational phase, that’s exactly what you don’t do. It’s such an immense and complicated thing, involving such Brobdingnagian logistics and hundreds of thousands of people, it’s either go or no-go. You’re either helping it to be a safe, successful event, or you’re not.
The big circus that everybody enjoys on their TV every two or four years comes about because of the boring stuff involving spreadsheets and trucks and warehouses and accountants and shipping manifests and scaffolders and electricians and technicians and builders which takes seven years to organise. The die is cast for Tokyo. It’s either fully underway, or not at all. It can’t stop for a friendly chat.
So it’s happening. Personally, I believe it will be safe; not being a public health expert, luckily I don’t have to stake my reputation on it. There are real risks and I don’t want to play down the seriousness of any of them.
But Yamaguchi is right about one thing; in the Faustian pact that the Japanese government has got itself into, something will be missing from the whole thing: who will these Olympics be for?
With just a few weeks to go in Rio, the prediction from all sides was that it would be a disaster, with the blame laid at Brazil’s door. In the end, despite a couple of small mishaps, the Games went ahead as planned, and the TV audiences were healthy. (A huge number of volunteers quit in Rio as well, same as is happening now.) But this situation feels different. It is not business as usual. If the IOC and the Japanese don’t get this absolutely right, it risks the entire circus going into long-term decline, if audiences are turned off.
An announcement was made this week about the podiums, part of the fully overshadowed publicity buildup. A tiny corner of the Olympic design world, made of recycled plastics, it was a representation of the minimalist (if conservative) design style that has characterised these Games, long before coronavirus upended everything. I think they are smart and modern and forward-looking, and normally I love this kind of design minutiae that adds to the flavour of the whole dish. But recycled podiums are not what is needed right now.
Presenting the Victory Ceremony podiums of the Olympic and Paralympic Games! 😍
What is needed right now is to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese and wider public, indeed the whole world. To convince people that they are worth doing. This is going to take some humility on behalf of the IOC and some brilliant PR from the Japanese government. Neither has shown a great deal of aptitude for either of these recently. And there’s only a month and a half left.
People once spoke of a forty year Olympic curse. In 1940 Japan was due to host the Summer and Winter Games in Tokyo and Sapporo respectively; both were cancelled due to World War Two. In 1980, the Moscow Games were hit with mass boycotts due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Over 66 countries refused to attend, including the USA and China.
In 2020… well, I’m sure you’re fully aware of what has happened in 2020 so far. The entire Western world has been completely upended and no one is yet sure of anything much at this writing. In early April, the Tokyo Games were suspended for almost exactly a year, the first time in history an Olympic competition has ever not started on time. Everyone involved, from the IOC to the Japanese government to the organising committee to the sport federations is currently 100% on message and behind the Games starting as re-planned in July 2021.
As many people have noted, it’s not entirely as simple as that. Some have suggested that without a widely available vaccine, the Games will simply have to be cancelled – it would be impossible to gather that many people from all over the world safely. While it’s likely that many of the athletes would be willing to take that chance, and national Olympic committees would be sure to test anyone going – the spectators are a different matter entirely.
It seems to have been made abundantly clear that it is ‘2021 or bust’, there will be no further delay. Indeed, the current plan seems to be ‘we’re doing it, corona or no corona’, with a notably more bullish tone in recent weeks.
Cancelling the Games still seems almost unthinkable – although postponing them seemed almost equally unthinkable just a few months ago. The immense sunk costs – $25 billion or more, by some estimates – without any revenue returning would cripple the Japanese economy further, and would be a catastrophic loss of face for the country. The Summer Olympics is also the financial engine that keeps tens of thousands of people employed worldwide, and funds most of the operations of the international federations (such as World Archery) too. The Winter Olympics, now following the Summer Games by just six months, might go too.
Some have again suggested that the Games will be held behind closed doors, which would allow the crucial TV coverage to continue. European football matches are currently being held and televised with added crowd noise, it’s not impossible we could see the same next year too.
For all the talk about the essential Games atmosphere, it should be remembered that 99.5% of the Olympic audience will only ever see an Olympic event on television in their lifetime, and many aspects of the Games are now ultimately subordinate to the demands of television, because of the revenue it generates.
Or perhaps the doors will be ‘semi-closed’; restricted to Tokyo citizens only to reduce travel, or only spectators that can prove they are coronavirus-free – or both.
There may be further knock-on effects too, related to the mass postponement of major events this year to a crammed-busy 2021. Some have suggested that Paris 2024 might be delayed a year too. As now seems usual in the age of coronavirus: change is the only thing that seems certain.
Many archery Olympians – or due-to-be Olympians – have welcomed the year’s delay. For some former medallists, such as Lisa Unruh and Michele Frangilli, who are both recovering from shoulder surgery, the postponement gives them another chance of an Olympic cap which would otherwise be in doubt. For the major national sides such as France and Turkey who are still without an Olympic spot, it may test the coaching and psychology setups to the limit.
Many national teams have completely restarted their selection procedures for 2021, including Korea, the biggest national fish of all – which means that former champions Ki Bo Bae and Chang Hye Jin, both of whom had fallen out of the process last year, might just be able to make another Games, and who knows, maybe even medal.
Some teams in well-isolated facilities have managed to continue shooting and training throughout the pandemic; while others have had to work at home. One thing is certain, with no more international outdoor competition this year, and the indoor calendar in serious doubt too, it will be whoever keeps their head and stays coolest that will thrive when the build-up competitions and qualifiers restart next year.
USA Olympian Mackenzie Brown was clear about what lay in front of her. “I am completely behind this decision to postpone the Games. I believe to be in line with the Olympic spirit. We are in crazy times right now and it’s difficult to keep very optimistic, but I’ve been training for four years for my dreams and I will continue to train and be ready at any moment to put on my best performance. It’s hard to wait for the next competition, but it’s what I was born to do, in my opinion, and I will continue to push on.”
As for what will happen next year: Korea still remain favourites, probably, for all five gold medals available, although the results over the last year or two give ever more pause for thought as to the possibilities. The Taipei challenge is ever stronger, but we all said that last time around. But you feel the women’s team victory at the World Championships has wedged open a door, psychologically at least. The team events will likely be won, or lost, inside someone’s head.
It would be great for the sport to see a less-fancied but dangerous archery nation – am thinking Kazakhstan, Indonesia, or Vietnam – push through and make a podium. It also seems like there will be a lot of veterans out representing next year; it would also be fantastic to see an older archer find the sixth gear and take a prize.
The last Summer Games to be held, despite much doomsaying and a handful of hair-raising incidents, in the end went off almost without a hitch. However it was held in an atmosphere of empty stadiums amid a populace who almost (but not quite) seemed to turn their backs on the competition. Rio was a city mired with debt problems and inequality, and in a country going through political turmoil and a murderous recession – and the Olympic movement isn’t really part of the collective consciousness in Brazil. (Interestingly, the Paralympics in Rio were far better attended than the Olympics; a combination of dirt-cheap tickets and increasing familiarity saw both weekends in the main Olympic Park sell out).
Few host cities on Earth could have lived up to 2012. London sold out almost every ticket across the Games, which no Olympics has ever got close to before, and may never again. In Rio, the threat of Zika and crime scared off more casual tourists, whatever the milder reality might have been. When even the athletics session for Usain Bolt running the 100m, an event watched by a total of two billion people in 2012, failed to sell out on the ground, you know something is very wrong. Selling tickets won’t, at least, be a problem in Olympics-mad Japan next year.
When Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, on a grand scale it seemed like a genuinely brilliant idea. The economy was going through the roof. Oil was at record highs. It fit past Olympic narratives of a national power thrusting fully into the world after a long period in the wilderness; Tokyo 1964, a modern industrial nation emerging from losing a war, and similar tales at Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992. Everybody wanted it to work. Brazil, with all its extraordinary natural advantages and increasing financial clout, finally taking a place at the forefront of the modern world with a Rio Olympics as a catalyst.
But there’s a grim proverb popular over there: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” It didn’t quite happen as everyone might have hoped, and the Rio Games perhaps has destroyed the narrative that the Olympics is a globally transformative power. Politicians and taxpayers are much more wary, and in the last decade or so dozens of nascent bids around the world for multi-sport Games have never got past a local mayor or an opinion poll. The Winter Olympics is an increasingly difficult sell; the expense versus the return looks even less attractive than the Summer Games.
A positive outcome?
The next two editions of the summer Games, in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028, seem likely to be the last of the same old model; the Games in one city, one vastly expensive expression of soft Western power. The double award is a testament to the IOC’s flexibility in keeping the model alive. After that, the Games will either move to a multi-city model or you’ll likely only be seeing it in places with autocratic governments. Possibly both.
The past decade has been a difficult time for the Olympic movement. It’s been difficult to be positive about much in 2020, but if the coronavirus era comes to a close next year, via ‘herd immunity’ or a vaccine or both, a full-steam ahead Tokyo Games might be a genuine collective moment for the world, that will be facing plenty of other existential problems over the next decades. It might even become the defining moment for the Olympic movement. It could be the greatest Games ever.
From a public perspective, the choice was simple and obvious: postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, in the face of global pandemic. Fine. Just hold it next year. For everyone involved in the Olympic movement, the problems were only just beginning.
Shortly before Easter, there was an alarming message from Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of Tokyo 2020, saying that the big show was still not guaranteed for next year. Perhaps he was reacting to the chaotic political reaction to the COVID-19 wave that seems to have finally hit Japan, but it was still surprisingly gloomy.
“I don’t think anyone would be able to say if it is going to be possible to get [the pandemic] under control by next July or not,” Muto said on Friday 10th April. “We’re certainly not in a position to give a clear answer.” A state of emergency has recently been declared in the country, and Japan is about to officially enter a recession.
We are of course firmly in uncharted territory. No Olympics in history has ever been postponed before, and the Olympics has never been larger or more complicated, against a backdrop of an ever-evolving global pandemic that is still not fully understood. Indeed, the start time of an Olympic event has apparently never moved before.
The global sports calendar has collapsed, with the biggest questions over further potential waves of coronavirus, and whether a vaccine will be ready in time for July 2021 – neither of which is answerable at the moment. Some have questioned whether the Paralympics will go ahead as re-planned next year. Dick Pound, the IOC’s media blunt instrument, even started flagging that Beijing 2022 might be under threat. It’s become a cliche, but we are in totally unprecedented times – for sport, and the world.
2021: WHY JULY?
After trying to put the decision off as long as possible, in the end, behind closed doors, there was enough agreement to hold it in the same July / August slot as before – with just a hint of rancour between the organising committee and the IOC. This frustrated a briefly nascent movement trying to push for either an October start or a spring Games. Both would bring logistical hurdles, and an autumn start crosses into Japan’s typhoon season. Both would also cut across some of the sporting calendar, but crucially avoid the worst of the summer heat and humidity in Japan; already casting a large potential shadow, with summer temperatures easily able to hit a murderous 41°C (106°F). The weather is bad enough that the marathon had already been forced to move to Sapporo following the sporting debacle in Doha last year.
But in the end, the interests of the broadcasters prevailed. The networks pay billions of dollars for broadcasting rights in that summer slot when the global sports calendar is otherwise quiet, thus increasing the chances of capturing a bigger audience.
Indeed, back in 2012, the IOC actually stipulated that bidders for 2020 need to hold the event between July 15 and Aug 31. The city of Doha offered to host the 2020 Games in October because of the oppressive summer heat in Qatar; published feedback from their unsuccessful bid indicated that that was a non-starter from the point of view of the broadcasters.
It wasn’t always like this. When Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics back in 1964, they were held in October. The same thing happened in Mexico in 1968. But that was in an era where the attitude towards TV coverage was something like: “if you want to show it, please turn up with your cameras.” An exception was also made for Sydney in 2000, who held the Games in the last two weeks of September.
Now, the TV broadcasters are all powerful. As Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, which broadcast the Games in the USA in the 1990s put it to Reuters: “The Summer Olympics are simply of less value if held in October because of pre-existing program commitments for sports.”
Delaying the Games is going to cost a lot of money, and quite who is going to pay for it hasn’t been settled in detail yet.
The Games were originally costed at $12.6 billion, in US dollars. These things being what they are, the cost has more than doubled to around $26bn, according to an audit last year. All but around $6bn of that is public money. Estimates of the cost of delaying vary between $2bn and $6bn dollars, which will again have to be borne by Tokyo’s taxpayers. The IOC is also on the hook for “several hundred million dollars” of its own costs according to Thomas Bach, the IOC president, speaking to a German newspaper – shortly before he dodged direct questions about further postponement and the status of Russia in the event.
There are costs at almost every stage; the biggest of which are staff and venues. The staff include foreign and local workers, many seconded from the Tokyo Metropolitan government, all of which only had contracts until the end of September. All the venues and the athletes village had legacy plans which will have to be extended by force majeure if necessary, at immense cost. Thousands of tons of branding, infrastructure and equipment will have to be stored for another year. Suppliers will want paying.
The Tokyo 2020 President, former Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori warned the international federations (the governing bodies of each sport, such as World Archery) that they will be on the hook for some of it. In the best traditions of ultra-polite, obscurantist language, he said: “Deciding who will bear these costs and how it will be done will be a major challenge.”
The immense amounts of cash from broadcasters and sponsors for each Games is funnelled through the IOC, which makes a contribution to the operating costs of the organising committee. At the end of each Games, the rest of the money gets split up between the international federations, and national Olympic committees, as well as the IPC, WADA, and various UN projects. The IOC makes great show of the fact that 90% of the Games profits head back out the door to fund sport and humanitarian projects worldwide. After the last summer outing in Rio 2016, the federations received $520 million between them.
Clearly, the IOC’s contribution to Tokyo’s costs in this case will end up being be higher, and Mori was hinting that the pot would be smaller after the Games finally happen in 2021 – which means that the international federations will have a budget headache for the next Olympic cycle. Essentially, they will be partially paying for a delay which wasn’t their fault.
So the federations, expecting a large chunk of their operating budget for the next four years this autumn, already have a problem on their hands. With many of them based in Lausanne, the Swiss government has apparently come up with some bailout measures; unsurprisingly wanting to keep one of their more powerful financial engines turning. But further downstream, national Olympic committees and many precariously-funded national federations will likely be in significant trouble. With the world clearly heading for depression, corporate sponsor budgets for sport will start to dry up.
There are other financial issues; contracts for sponsorship by big ‘gold partner’ corporations such as Toyota only run until the end of the 2020 calendar year. They will be under pressure to extend these contracts, but some, looking at a huge downturn in business and fearing a major global depression, may start pleading poverty. Who will make up the shortfall? Tokyo hotels, holding on to the prospect of a windfall this summer, are already going out of business. Will there be enough room for the millions descending on the city next year?
Two big sub-Olympic competitions have had to postpone due to proximity to the big dance. The World Games, due to be held in Alabama in July 2021, has been pushed back a year. The World Athletics Championships, due to be held in Eugene, Oregon also in July next year, have similarly been pushed back a year. Most other sports (including archery) also hold their world championships in Olympic off-years. It seems likely that more 2021 events will see delays, adjustments, or even outright cancellations.
The World Masters Games were due to be held in Kansai, Japan in May 2021, and supposedly, sets of equipment and chunks of infrastructure from Tokyo 2020 were earmarked for use in the competition. The WMG is a huge tourism cash cow, but in a different city and run by a different government. The organisers are currently keeping tight-lipped about what will happen, but it is clear the event may be under threat – even if the Japanese federal government will be loathe to have a second major event on home turf cancelled. It’s difficult to predict what will happen here, but total cancellation would look terrible for all kinds of reasons.
There are dozens of issues, major and minor, to solve in fields as diverse as qualification, venues, volunteers, anti-doping and broadcasting. Age limits have resulted in a ruling that “next year’s” gymnasts (turning 16) will be eligible, and FIFA is expected to approve a move which will see the upper age-limit for the men’s football raised from 23 to 24 for the 2021 event. Issues of selection get ever more granular: as Bow International pointed out at the end of March, some nations had already publicly selected archery teams for their confirmed national spots. Will they honour those selections a year on?
Tom Dielen, the World Archery secretary-general was interviewed for the Around The Rings podcast on the future problems facing him. He mentioned that one of the confirmed Paralympic judges was within the age limit for 2020, but not for 2021. Should they make an exception? There were further issues with Paralympic athletes because of their invariably more complex needs.
Dielen reiterated that national governing bodies would be given two months notice or more of competition rescheduling or cancellation. He also mentioned that continental events might be easier to organise than international events, depending on the spread of the virus and the situation with air travel.
Archery around the world has stopped, and it is unclear of this writing exactly when it will restart. As the post-COVID-19 world gradually emerges over the next few months, it seems that everybody, including sports will have to continue thinking about social distancing for some time. As an outdoor sport, archery seems like it will have an easier time than some adjusting to the new normal, particularly with the sport’s deep commitment to camaraderie. Rules can be changed. Lines can be re-spaced.
Several media outlets criticised Thomas Bach, the IOC president, for proceeding with this ritual bit of Olympic arcana, a demonstration of the IOC’s insistence that the show must go on against a backdrop of rising deaths all over the world. In the meantime, the Russian sports minister is claiming that the anti-doping ban being served by hundreds of Russian athletes should be overturned against the current chaos, a call that could be described as opportunistic – at best.
With the Russian question remaining unsolved, Bach will be facing by far the toughest challenge of his presidential career over the next 18 months. He is also up for election in 2021; he has not officially confirmed his candidacy, but it would be a surprise if he did not run again. No real successor has yet emerged, but Bach is not universally liked in Lausanne and it is not impossible one could appear, especially if things start going south. (The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is also apparently up for re-election in 2021, and you feel they probably wish they weren’t.)
But it seems that with enough political and cultural will in Japan, all these problems are surmountable; in a coming depression, holding on to the vast and already-sunk costs with the prospect of a payoff down the road becomes even more important. Perhaps, after each country completes its three months (or so) of lockdown and slowly relaxes other containment measures, something like normality will start approaching again by the summer. Perhaps. The great fear is another wave of virus this time next year; some have even suggested that without an available vaccine against COVID-19, the Games simply cannot go ahead.
More widely, the summer Olympics is the single genuinely global event, and it would be be fitting, perhaps even vital for humanity to hold it at the end of a worldwide crisis.
But one thing is certain: there’s a lot of ground to cover before we can be absolutely sure of seeing an opening ceremony in Shinjuku on the 23rd of July, 2021.