Everything you need to know about a post-pandemic Olympics

Olympic smoke rings in a blue sky above a full stadium.

How do you organise an international sporting event, stay at the top of your athletic game and hold on to sponsorships in the time of enforced distancing? Sports reporter Sean Ingle investigates

By Sean Ingle    Above image: Getty    Friday 7 August, 2020   Long read

Before the world as we once knew it was suddenly spun on its axis and hard paused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s leading 400m hurdler Dai Greene was preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. But after the Games were postponed by a year, and nearly every track and high-performance centre in the UK was shut down in March, Greene had to get creative to keep his dream alive.

Living on his partner’s parents’ farm meant he had access to beefy – if battered – tractor tyres, which he began flipping and using for deadlifts. Heavy logs that were meant for firewood instead became weights for squat jumps and lunges. He even found a use for hay bales: they proved perfect for box jumps.

Greene was far from alone. The British pole vault champion Holly Bradshaw not only built a home gym in her garage on the eve of lockdown, but also practised for her event by running down her garden using a tin of beans taped to a washing pole.

Meanwhile, ordinary athletes who paid a £3 fee to use the Barnes Elms track in south west London (one of the few to stay open during the pandemic), found themselves straining to keep up with Team GB contenders like Adelle Tracey, Chris Thompson and Scott Overall. While former 100m Olympic champion Linford Christie, whose sprint group turned up every Tuesday, watched on.

‘The bottom line if you’re an elite athlete is that you find a way,’ says award-winning coach Toni Minichiello who guided Jessica Ennis-Hill to heptathlon glory at London 2012. ‘And, strange though it sounds, this period might actually benefit some Olympians. Competition is incredibly stressful. You are straining every sinew to produce a personal best, so there’s a higher risk of injury. Doing a lot of work in the 95% zone will help physically, even if it means training by running on grass and up hills, rather than on the track.’

Inevitably, some stars had to make even more drastic changes. Britain’s gold medal-winning breaststroke swimmer Adam Peaty, for instance, had to cut his caloric intake from 4,500 to 2,500 a day, as he was no longer able to swim 10,000 metres a day in a 50-metre pool. Instead, he had to rely on a 5.7 metre-long SwimFit ‘flume’ tank he built in his back garden. Yet Minichiello doesn’t expect the lockdown to have a lasting impact on athletes’ physical prowess, especially now that centres and gyms are open again.
A woman pole vaulting in a residential street.
A woman pole vaulting in a residential street.
An athlete working out in his back garden.

‘If Tokyo takes place, it will be seen as an even brighter light after the dark tunnel of lockdown and these unprecedented times'

‘Most Olympic athletes are more like Anthony Joshua than Ricky Hatton,’ says Minichiello. ‘Their weight won’t have ballooned during lockdown. The bigger issue has been the mental uncertainty. We still don’t know whether the Tokyo Games will take place, and so athletes are asking, “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” They have lost their North Star. I find myself sounding more like Lance Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army: ‘Don’t panic!’ There is still 12 months to go and plenty of time to get into perfect shape.’ 

That assumes, of course, that the biggest sporting event on the planet will take place in 2021 – something that won’t be clear until spring next year at the earliest. What if there is a second wave? Or if the virus lingers in 25% of countries? The Games presents an especially difficult public health challenge given that 15,400 athletes from 206 countries are due to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics – as well as all the spectators flying in from across the globe. 

And while Japan has been relatively spared with approximately 1,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, recent polls show that around 70% of Japanese doubt the Games will happen, or believe they should not happen.

Without a vaccine, the screenwriter William Goldman’s famous maxim ‘Nobody knows anything’ comes to mind. But the IOC is trying to find a way through the murk. And, as things stand, 200 different measures that could enable the Games to safely take place are being assessed. The world will know more when the IOC meets at the end of September, but its President, Thomas Bach, has already warned that while fans are preferable, they are not guaranteed.

Assuming Tokyo goes ahead, what should we expect? Well, a central focus for organisers has always been for these to be the ‘recovery and reconstruction Games’, following the tsunami in 2011, which led to more than 10,000 deaths and a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. After COVID-19, that same message will now be given a global resonance.

Michael Payne, who worked inside the Olympic movement for nearly two decades and negotiated the IOC’s £1bn deal with the Chinese firm Alibaba, expects sponsors and brands to follow suit.

‘The Olympics has always been unique in that it brings the whole world together in a celebration of sport,’ he says. ‘But if Tokyo takes place, it will be seen as an even brighter light after the dark tunnel of lockdown and these unprecedented times. Most brands are understandably still working on their messaging. However, if the world is through the worst of the virus, I expect recovery and regeneration to be a key theme.’

This being Japan, tech will also be front and centre of the Games, too. Designs for the official Tokyo 2020 Robot Project include Toyota’s Human Support Robot, which can take – and then bring – food and drinks orders to spectators using wheelchairs. There’s also a T-HR3 Humanoid robot that will be able to shake hands and high-five athletes (see here).

That’s not all. Robots designed to look like the official mascots, Miraitowa and Someity, will also welcome athletes and spectators at Games venues with human-like movements, such as bowing and waving, and with a variety of facial expressions.

It’s little wonder that those inside the Olympic movement insist that most of the ingredients are in place to make the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics one of the most iconic Games in history. For the time being at least, though, all bets are off. As they dolefully concede, the pandemic still calls the shots.

Sean Ingle is Chief Sports Reporter at Guardian News & Media
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