OpEd: The Keys to Tokyo’s Success - How Tokyo 2020 Pulled Off the Games That Many Believed Too Dangerous & Wanted Cancelled

While athletes performed at awe inspiring levels in Tokyo, The Opinionist says the controversy and conjecture that surrounded the Games has overshadowed the organization that made Tokyo 2020 possible and successful.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athlete Arrivals - Narita International Airport, Narita, Japan - July 19, 2021 A woman waves the Chinese flag as China team members wearing protective face masks and face shields arrive at Narita International Airport ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athlete Arrivals - Narita International Airport, Narita, Japan - July 19, 2021 A woman waves the Chinese flag as China team members wearing protective face masks and face shields arrive at Narita International Airport ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The Olympic Games can occur at critical junctures in world history and history of host cities and international community.

We reached a flashpoint in Tokyo amid fears the world’s biggest sporting event would spread infections rapidly across the host city, Japan, and world beyond.

Orphaned and unwanted in a host nation fearful and unsure, Tokyo 2020 defied doomsday scenarios and expectations.

Despite the virus surging in and around greater Tokyo, conditions proved safer for athletes inside bubbled venues and facilities than in their home nations.

While the Games spotlight focused on the performances and welfare of front line athletes, organizers and planners played pivotal roles, obscured by doubts and debate over the Games.

An unprecedented level of planning and organization was evident from the start.

The opening ceremony acknowledged a world in grief with respect and restraint, and without contrived Wow moments conjured from the Disney playbook.

NO MARGIN FOR ERROR

The high quality of organization continued through to the closing ceremony, but this was more like climbing Mount Everest than Mount Fuji.

Tokyo 2020 was sport’s moon landing.

Attempting to Covid-proof the planet’s biggest sports show pushed planning to the extremities.

While the FIFA World Cup finals involves 32 nations, 64 games and approximately 740 male players, the Olympic Games by contrast involved more than 200 nations, 340 events, and 10,000 athletes across 33 sports in Tokyo, the biggest Olympic sports program.

This was the equivalent of staging 33 world championships almost simultaneously or approximately five FA Cup finals or NFL Super Bowls every day for 16 consecutive days in a pandemic.

General view of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing area and saliva sample collection room at the Tokyo Olympic Main Press Center in Tokyo, Japan, July 12, 2021.   REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
General view of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing area and saliva sample collection room at the Tokyo Olympic Main Press Center in Tokyo, Japan, July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Everything depended on Tokyo’s capacity to test, trace, and isolate Covid amongst thousands of competitors and participants, and address every operational and virus related issue immediately in venues and facilities across the city and country.

There was almost no margin for error over 16 long days and nights of competition and arrivals and departures.

With the entire world watching, fearful of a peak outbreak, Japan and the IOC’s international brand and reputation was on the line for every hour of every day of the Games.

TOKYO HAD IT ALL

Athletes responded to Tokyo’s Games planning and environment with a plethora of Olympic, world, and national records, and almost always with grace, courage and goodwill no matter their fate or outcomes.

Tokyo had it all, reflecting the great diversity and uncertainty of sport and life on a fragile planet.

There were medalists who had recovered from cancer, brain trauma and battled mental health and eating disorders, and Covid too; a diver who knitted a gold medal; and refugees who trained in exile and on laptops.

Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with a police officer at Haneda international airport in Tokyo, Japan August 1, 2021.  REUTERS/Issei Kato
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with a police officer at Haneda international airport in Tokyo, Japan August 1, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

There was airport asylum drama, and a swimmer, abandoned as baby, who defeats a competitor from the nation that abandoned her 20 years earlier and wins gold for her adopted homeland.

Tokyo 2020 was the Mind Games, where athletes provided counseling and focus to the outside world from the mixed zone.

“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything, said US swimming legend Katie Ledecky, “but I want people to be concerned about other things that are going on in the world, people that are truly suffering.”

These were stories the world was longing for.

TOKYO’S KEYS TO SUCCESS

All this happened because organizers remained focused on planning the best possible conditions for the athletes, despite deteriorating local and global conditions as the pandemic and opposition to the Games worsened.

The 10 key focus areas below, relating to the safety and performance of athletes and enabling their stories to be told, underpinned much of Tokyo’s success.

· Successful implementation and enforcement of proven Covid countermeasures on a scale never attempted in sport before.

· IOC investment in medical services, staff and technology for testing, tracing and isolation of Covid cases.

· High vaccination rates amongst athletes, teams, officials and media

· Test events that successfully trialed key Games venues, bio-security measures, competition and media infrastructure, technology, and operations

· Venues designed with materials, surfaces and spaces, and staffed by highly trained venue operators to maximize sporting performance.

· Fast pool and fast track that generated moments of global attention that spanned the Games and the world.

· Long term training programs that led to Japan’s record medals success, shifting public opinion from opposition to support.

· Innovative sports presentation, broadcast and digital formats that engaged viewers everywhere on screens of all shapes and sizes.

· High performing local organizing committee and IOC Coordination Commission monitoring and guiding Tokyo’s preparations.

· Strong partnerships between IOC leadership and committees with Japanese Government and key ministries and departments.

TOKYO’S ‘GAMES FIRST’ FOCUS

The relationship between IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Ministers Abe and Suga was vital, especially in maintaining whole of government support and revenues for the delayed Games.

IOC Vice President John Coates attends a meeting with IOC President Thomas Bach and Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto at the Tokyo 2020 Headquarters on July 13, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Takashi Aoyama/Pool via REUTERS
IOC Vice President John Coates attends a meeting with IOC President Thomas Bach and Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto at the Tokyo 2020 Headquarters on July 13, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Takashi Aoyama/Pool via REUTERS

IOC Executive Director, Christophe Dubi, played a key role in managing the playbooks for rules that minimized infections amongst athletes and in venues.

The IOC Coordination Commission led by John Coates was critical, along with members including Seb Coe, president of World Athletics, the most important Olympic sport.

Coates, who led planning for the iconic Sydney 2000 Games, and Coe, for the universally acclaimed London 2012 Games, were essential to Tokyo’s athlete centered planning culture.

As executive adviser for the London 2012 Olympic Committee, I vividly remember Coe’s constant mantra, as our chairman, that we could never allow any shortcomings in planning to diminish the experience or performance of the athletes. Sport was always protected from budget cuts.

Coates, Coe and their teams had instilled the ‘athlete first’ model into Tokyo’s planning prior to the pandemic.

TOKYO 2.0 – REINVENTING THE GAMES

Rebuilding the Games around the athletes and the pandemic took planning into unchartered territory.

Adjustments needed to be constantly made as scientific understanding of virus transmission changed from close contact or on contaminated surfaces to airborne.

Operating plans for venues, developed over nearly seven years of painstaking planning had to be redesigned in record time.

An Hye-jin, a South Korean volleyball team member for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, goes through a security check at the athletes' village as she carries bags with boxed meals cooked by South Korean chefs, in Tokyo, Japan, July 26, 2021.   REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
An Hye-jin, a South Korean volleyball team member for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, goes through a security check at the athletes' village as she carries bags with boxed meals cooked by South Korean chefs, in Tokyo, Japan, July 26, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Village, hotel, competition and training venues, operations and services had to be carefully rethought.

These included security, medical, and transport services, technology, accommodation, venue ventilation, infection control and cleaning.

The dawn of the highly infectious Delta variant at the start of the year determined final Games decisions and success.

GAMES PLAN

Keeping competition and broadcasting schedules on track was imperative.

This was essential to maximize returns on investment for partners and sponsors and revenues for Olympic sports and IOC programs.

Tokyo’s masking, testing, tracing, isolation and social distancing mandates minimized infections, reduced exposure sites, and mystery cases of unknown transmission.

This enabled organizers to keep venues open and competitions moving forward.

“All of the plans to protect safety and security of athletes are based around worst possible circumstances,” Coates said in the countdown to the Games.

VACCINATING THE GAMES

Tokyo 2020 was the biggest global collaboration effort of the pandemic since vaccine discoveries and rollouts, and athletes vaccinated themselves and the Games against virus outbreaks.

While vaccination was not a pre-requisite for competition, efforts by IOC, Tokyo organizers, NOCs, IFs and governments worldwide resulted in up to 80 percent of athletes, media and other groups receiving vaccinations for the Games.

This, along with other countermeasures, protected the vast majority of athletes against possible transmission from close contact inside Games bubbles.

Tokyo 2020 wasn’t flawless. The host city and Japanese Government needed to better contain the virus and vaccinate the population prior to the Games.

Communications around the changing circumstances of the Games and pandemic contributed to a climate of crisis and uncertainty.

MEMO: BEIJING, PARIS, AND BEYOND

After dividing Japan, Tokyo 2020 reunited the host nation with its final gold medal of the Games coming in baseball, a favorite sport.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Baseball - Men - Gold Medal Match - United States v Japan - Yokohama Baseball Stadium, Yokohama, Japan - August 7, 2021. Team Japan celebrate winning the Gold Medal Match. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Baseball - Men - Gold Medal Match - United States v Japan - Yokohama Baseball Stadium, Yokohama, Japan - August 7, 2021. Team Japan celebrate winning the Gold Medal Match. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

This generated Japanese pride, hidden and humble, in homes and hearts across the nation.

Tokyo’s great organizational achievement was to integrate countless pieces of complex and diverse planning in an unfolding global health emergency to enable athletes to safely deliver magic sporting moments of hope and optimism

The handover to Paris 2024 was launched from the safety of the Covid-free International Space Station. Before Paris, the Olympic Movement must return to China, where most scientists believe the pandemic originated. The Winter Olympics in Beijing in less than six months could face twin threats - from a political virus as well as a biological one while Delta remains dominant and calls for a Beijing boycott persist. While vaccination will be the golden ticket for crowds seeking to attend Beijing, Tokyo’s focus on athletes’ conditions remains the gold standard for future Games success with or without spectators, the virus or protests.

Michael Pirrie is an international communications and Olympic Games and major events advisor. Michael led the global media campaign for the London 2012 Olympic Games and served as Executive Advisor to the London Olympic Organising Committee and Chair Seb Coe. He led the international communications strategy for the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) campaign that paved the way for baseball and softball to feature at the Tokyo Games.

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