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Tokyo Olympics: ‘There is no blueprint’ for staging Games in a pandemic

The most complex Olympics ever staged gets under way on Friday following an unprecedented logistical effort to preserve the scale of the Tokyo Games while preventing a debilitating coronavirus outbreak.

Previous Olympics have been buffeted by boycotts, corruption scandals, doping controversies and terrorist attacks. But nothing in the 125-year history of the modern Games has prepared it for being held in the teeth of a global pandemic.

“It’s by far the most complex and most difficult ever because there is no blueprint for this,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. “We had to invent things by the day.”

The estimated $800m in additional costs came from the decision to postpone the Games by a year rather than cancel the event altogether. That resulted in a scramble to renegotiate thousands of commercial contracts, from hotel bookings to sponsorship deals. 

The IOC said it also identified $280m in savings, such as cutting its workforce, but the gargantuan size of Games has been largely maintained: 33 sports and 339 medal events will be held at 42 venues across Japan. About 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes are due to arrive in the coming weeks alongside thousands more coaches, judges and other officials. 

Holding the Games will protect the IOC’s global broadcasting and sponsorship contracts, which were worth $5.7bn in the four years running up to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The final costs fall disproportionately on Japan. Local sponsors have stumped up tens of millions of dollars in extra payments while the decision to hold the Games without spectators put Tokyo taxpayers on the hook to refund ¥90bn ($816m) in ticket sales. 

The extra spending has gone to creating an Olympics “bubble”. All overseas delegates are being tracked on specially designed apps to ensure they only visit Olympic venues, and are largely cut off from the rest of the city. Delegates are allowed to make trips away from their hotels for 15 minutes at a time to visit convenience stores. Intentionally breaking out for any longer risks being thrown out of the competition. 

Athletes, officials and everyone near the field of play will have to provide daily saliva samples © Michael Kappeler/dpa

Problems are mounting already. The tracking app is not working for all delegates. Some media have been forced into quarantine in their hotel room for 14 days after sitting near someone on the plane to Tokyo who subsequently tested positive.

The 70-page “playbooks” that outline exhaustive “countermeasures” against the virus have been updated three times in recent weeks, creating confusion around the rules. Competitors must wear masks at almost all times save eating, sleeping and competing. Transparent acrylic screens have been installed throughout Olympic venues to limit contact between participants. But the measures have not deterred most competitors.

“I can honestly say there has not been an athlete who has not wanted to travel to Tokyo,” said Andy Anson, chief executive of the British Olympic Committee. “This is the pinnacle and they are desperate to go.”

Many, however, will skip cherished Olympic traditions such as attending the opening or closing ceremonies. “It gives you more time to get in your own head,” said Clayton Murphy, the defending bronze medallist in the men’s 800-metre run. “You can sit in the village and focus”. 

A worker cleans tables at the press centre for the Tokyo Games
A worker cleans tables at the press centre for the Tokyo Games. The scale of the event has been preserved despite numerous setbacks: 33 sports and 339 medal events will be held at 42 venues across Japan © Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

The IOC struck deals with pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Chinese government to acquire vaccines, which have been distributed through national health services or at specially created centres in the US and Qatar. About 85 per cent of athletes are expected to have been inoculated prior to arrival in Tokyo.

The main defence against an outbreak will be collecting hundreds of thousands of Covid tests. Athletes, officials and anyone close to the “field of play” will need to provide saliva samples every day. A “fever clinic” will deal with any identified cases, isolating them from others in the Olympic Village. Tight competition schedules mean that even a false positive test will probably lead to missing out on the chance to compete. 

Athletes have been warned not to interact with those from other nations and to leave Japan within 48 hours of their competition ending. The dining hall in the Olympic Village has been divided into separate areas, with competitors split according to the prevalence of the Delta variant of coronavirus in their countries. 

The traditional party atmosphere has also been damped. To prevent close contact, tens of thousands of condoms will be handed out as souvenirs to athletes leaving the village, rather than receiving them on arrival as at previous Games.

“In London in 2012, I had all my family there. I was able to go out into the city and experience the hospitality and all of these cool things but we won’t have that this time,” said Will Claye, a US long jumper competing in his third Olympics. “I’m just going out there to handle business at this point.”

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