Why the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be like no other

Illustration showing red, blue, yellow, green and black olympic rings overlapping

The global sports spectacle begins this week after a year-long delay. The world’s best athletes will once again compete in the pool, on the track and around the velodrome. But this time, things are different. Here’s everything we know

By Samuel Fishwick    Illustration by Alvaro Bernis

Get set for Tokyo 2020, the century’s most intriguing Olympics. Records will tumble, stars will rise, and memories will be etched in fans’ memories forever – albeit from the comfort of their sofas. Spectators are verboten (3.5 million people had tickets, before the ceremony was moved behind closed doors last month), athletes are still shaking off long lockdown months of WFH workouts, and the host city has declared a state of emergency due to its rising COVID-19 cases. But on Friday, when the world’s sports stars descend on Japan's National Stadium for the opening ceremony, two months of glory awaits.

Social distancing

The delayed Tokyo Olympics will break acres of new ground. Podium finishers will have to wear a mask during medal ceremonies due to COVID-19 restrictions, hanging the ribbon around their own neck. There will be no handshakes, hugs, high-fives or crowds. The 65,000-seat, $1.4bn Olympic stadium in Tokyo, called koku-ritsu or ‘national’, will stand empty, bar the odd official. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said: ‘It will be made sure the person who will put the medal on the tray will do it with disinfected gloves.’ 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Athletes, instructed to ‘avoid unnecessary forms of physical contact’, can have medals yanked for flouting the rules. Alcohol can only be drunk when they are alone in their rooms, in tiny apartments of six. Sightseeing is forbidden. Organisers will hand out 150,000 condoms to the 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, but only as a parting gift – no sex, please, it’s a pandemic. Indeed, Twitter lit up on Monday as arriving athletes started sharing photos of their flimsy, cardboard ‘anti-sex beds’, said to crumple under the weight of two (or more) people. 


The cardboard beds are ‘actually stronger than the one made of wood or steel’, their maker Airweave said huffily on Monday, and have less to do with sex bans and more with keeping things green. Recyclable beds are part of a drive to make this Olympics the most environmentally friendly ever. The wooden Olympic Stadium roof’s giant glass-like solar panels will fuel electricity, and rain water from the roof and pavements will be collected in underground tanks to irrigate the turf (at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre, the water is heated by a geothermal pump). Even the Olympic cauldron is fuelled with hydrogen. So too are the 15 clean, green buses that carmaker Toyota has provided to ferry athletes around. Climate change will focus minds: weather watchers predict this will be the hottest games ever, so teams have been doing extra heat training. 

Illustration of person surfing

Greater inclusivity

And really it’s all about the athletes. Athing Mu, America’s fastest teenager, is sure to shine. Megan Rapinoe and her all-conquering US women’s soccer team will wipe the floor with the world’s also-rans. US gymnast Simone Biles, the defending Olympic all-round champion and five-time world champion, is looking to make history by winning six gold medals. 

It’s also the first Olympics since the start of the #MeToo movement in 2017, and Biles is the only self-identified survivor of sexual abuse by former US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. She wants to use the Olympics as a platform to shame the governing body. ‘I’m one of the only remaining survivors in the sport,’ she told The Wall Street Journal. ‘They can’t brush that under the rug, and they can’t stop talking about it.’ 

Team GB is calling this ‘the year of the female Olympian’, and is sending more women (201) than men (175) for the first time (49% of all athletes at this year’s games are women, the highest proportion ever). There will be a record 11 mums on the US team, six of whom are boosted by a $10,000 Power of She Fund: Child Care Grant. Speaking of families, 24 sets of siblings will be competing in the games, while Bruce Springsteen’s daughter, Jessica, will be competing for the US show-jumping team. 

More significantly, Laurel Hubbard, the New Zealand weightlifter, will be competing as the games’ first trans woman in an individual event (Quinn, a footballer for Canada’s women’s team, identifies as transgender). The games will be a win for the marginalised. An official refugee team of 29 athletes from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and South Sudan will compete under a neutral flag. ‘Up until now, I have only boxed for one country,’ says 5ft 3in Syrian bantamweight boxer, Wessam Salamana. ‘Now I’m boxing for the whole world.’ 

What else is new?

Six new sports make a debut, too: karate, in kata (solo) and kumite (combat) disciplines; skateboarding, heralding a new age of urbanised sports; baseball and softball; surfing; sport climbing. In skating, keep an eye out for 13-year-old Brit Sky Brown, the youngest of Team GB’s hopefuls. New dad Adam Peaty, the tattooed 100m speed machine, is sure to smash pool records with his revolutionary kick and sub 57-second times. Watch out for Ashley McKenzie in judo, the immensely likeable, self-funded reality TV star (Celebrity Big Brother, Celebs On The Farm, Celebrity Ex On The Beach) with asthma, epilepsy, partial deafness, and ADHD. She says: ‘If I didn’t have judo, I would be in jail.’     

Athletics itself may as well be a new sport, according to the retired Usain Bolt. He won’t be competing, but says the rise of Nike’s revolutionary running spikes – which feature superlight, energy-returning foam – would have let him run 100 metres in under 9.5 seconds. The ‘supershoe’ will add some whoosh to track events. 

Off duty, the athletes’ outfits will get just as much attention. Canada's team will be wearing closing ceremony denim, the US will be sporting white Polo Ralph Lauren, while China’s uniform includes the ‘scrambled eggs and stir-fried tomatoes’ blazer – social media is not impressed. Aesthetics and athletics mix. From cycling around Mount Fuji to the games’ digital mascot, Miraitowa (mirai meaning ‘future’, towa meaning ‘eternity’), the Olympics will bring something fresh to an ancient land. See you on the other side.

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