The Opinionist: The Turning Point For the Tokyo Games

Michael Pirrie reveals the reason why Tokyo 2020 is now "highly likely to happen".

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BY MICHAEL PIRRIE

After much conjecture and controversy, the Tokyo Olympic Games has reached a decisive turning point as the rapidly approaching Games comes into clearer view.

Even with infections still spreading, Tokyo’s recent pre-Games test events program was its turning point moment.

Like many critical junctures, the significance of these trial events has been underestimated outside most Olympic circles; obscured by global speculation about Japan’s virus surge, protests, and state of emergency extensions.

The trials demonstrated the safe operation of key biosecurity infection control procedures in principle and in practice.

With many Olympic athletes around the world about to complete qualification, preparing to pack Games uniforms and confirm flights, and with preliminary broadcasting schedules under constant review, the success of the test events program meant almost everything to Tokyo’s Games.

The tests indicated essential sporting infrastructure and services for the Games could operate in Covid safe ways for athletes and other participating groups.

This was an important response to the prolonged speculation preoccupying Japan and the international community about the future of the Games

Countermeasures used widely to combat high-risk transmission routes most relevant to Games safety were tested, especially airborne transmission.

The tests were conducted in laboratory-like bubbles with minimal numbers and movement of athletes and officials; no direct public contact; and no spectators to eliminate possible infection risk in venues and other settings.

TURNING THE GAMES

Amid a plunge in public support for the Games due to rising Covid cases, the test events may have been the most important program in Tokyo’s marathon 10-year journey to the Olympic Games.

Although smaller than previous Games programs I have worked on in London and Sydney, Tokyo tested a diverse range of Olympic settings, sports and disciplines.

These included volleyball, gymnastics, diving, track and field half marathon, sprinting, and skateboarding, on debut.

The test events will not quell questions over the future of the Games.

But the trials will maintain belief amongst Olympic stakeholders that the safety of the Games is still possible and achievable.

The most asked question in world sport was answered emphatically at a recent IOC media conference which declared Games preparations were moving fully ahead.

CROSSING THE RUBICON TO THE GAMES

IOC vice president John Coates and Tokyo Olympic president Seiko Hashimoto both attempted to reinforce confidence in the Games even more recently and emphatically, reconfirming that organizers are fully Games focused.

The test events had much to do with that confidence and belief that the Games could go ahead, even in a state of emergency.

If so, Tokyo has crossed the Rubicon to the Olympic Games over the test events bridge.

While the ultimate test will come in the weeks ahead, the trials were a survival test for Tokyo.

An outbreak of test event infections would have been an almost impossible setback.

"We have successfully seen five sports hold test events during a state of emergency," Coates emphasized after a recent progress review meeting.

TESTING FOR HOPE

The tests offer more than hope for Games organizers against a virus that kills hope; and for a shift in Games safety, perceptions and confidence

No Covid infections were reported among competitors or in neighborhoods surrounding test venues.

IOC president Thomas Bach has often said that it was a matter of how not if the Games would go ahead. The test events provide the how.

The tests showed that complex venue arrangements, live field of play and broadcast sports presentation, scoring, timing and results systems essential for the Games could operate in Covid safe settings.

Athletes importantly reported feeling safe in test bubbles and hubs.

This was vital in the current global environment of uncertainty and fear, with the virus still spreading in many Olympic nations and host Japan.

While life and sport are slowly recovering in some parts of the vaccinated world, India’s Covid catastrophe loomed Nostradamus-like.

SPECTATOR SPORT

Test event hubs and bubble operations will need to be dramatically expanded in the weeks ahead to cope with high Games time numbers which pose the greatest risk.

These could now include residents in Tokyo and other parts of Japan as fans start to return slowly to major international sporting events in London and other high vaccination cities and centers.

The possible presence of spectators will define the look and atmosphere of the Tokyo Games.

Spectators increase risks, and numbers will most likely depend on virus and vaccination levels in Tokyo and other competition locations, along with proof of inoculation or negative Covid-19 status for admission

Spectator attendance will also depend on confidence in venue ventilation and air purification systems and reconfiguration of venue seating at safe distances from fields of play and athletes.

GAMES DESIGNED TO ‘PROTECT LIVES’

There has been no turning point yet in opposition to the Games amid public health fears.

Concerns also that government policies and emergency declarations have failed to stop the virus spreading, although daily new infections have recently started to dip and stabilize.

The Government’s 'proceed at almost any cost' messaging around the Games has also alienated sectors of Japanese society and international support.

Moving forward, authorities need to soften communications and better acknowledge and address the public health fears.

The urgency of Games time countermeasures must also be highlighted.

"These are Covid-19 countermeasures designed to protect people’s lives," Toshiro Muto, chief executive of Tokyo Games organization, said recently.

GETTING GAMES READY

The test event protocols and related countermeasures indicate a potentially safe pathway through the Games may be possible.

With highly infectious strains of the virus circulating more widely and knowledge of new transmission settings and risks still evolving like the virus, the Tokyo Games is unlikely to escape Covid entirely.

The countermeasures, along with growing vaccination coverage in Japan and amongst international Olympic athletes and participants, will help to make the Tokyo Games Covid safer if not Covid proof or virus free.

A senior IOC member recently said only an Armageddon-like event could stop the Games.

As he spoke, the Torch Relay was tracking prophetically through largely empty streets resembling deserted landscapes from Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel "The Road".

The Olympic Flame is still burning and torch teams are still on the road to Tokyo, despite some earlier infections.

A host nation on high alert will be waiting to welcome the torch carriers - the front line Games workers who have kept the flame burning for Tokyo.

Japan, a nation that often expresses itself through sport in times of adversity, will also be awaiting its athletes as they emerge from the shadows of the pandemic after years of training and sacrifice for their home Games.

The story of the Tokyo Games has been one of turning points and sliding doors.

It seems the doors to the Games may soon be opening to the world.

The massive background scaffolding to support operations and production crews needed for the Olympic Games is moving into place.

The Games now is highly likely to happen. It seems there will be no turning back.

Anxious Olympic athletes and organizers, nervous medical experts and expectant global audiences will soon be awaiting the official start to the Games and hoping for a Covid safe fairy tale ending.

Michael Pirrie is an international communications and campaign strategist and Olympic Games advisor. Michael has worked on Olympic organizing committees and test events programs for the London and Sydney Olympic Games.

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