Should the Tokyo 2020 Olympics go ahead?

When Tokyo 2020 finally gets underway on 23 July, we’ll be right behind the athletes. But its hosts don't want it, so should it really be taking place? Tim Heming investigates...

unwelcome olympic flame

What a festival of sport awaits. What anticipation for triathlon at the Olympic Games. The most difficult contest to predict since Athens 2004. The addition of the mixed team relay. More medal expectation for Team GB.

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We’ll marvel at athletes’ achievements and sympathise with those who come up short. As a fortnight of escapism from the real world, it’s the best we’ll get. But they shouldn’t be happening, and I don’t think any amount of sporting drama on those 16 days from July 23 to August 8 will change my mind.

The questions of whether these Olympics should or will take place have concluded almost every conversation I’ve had about pro sport in the past 14 months. I always deferred to those with whom the decision should rest: the Japanese public, who’ll decide whether it’s a spectacle they wish to embrace.

There’s often discord ahead of an Olympics. Locals dislike disruption or footing the tax bill. It usually dissipates by the time of the action. This time, it’s different. Four in five Japanese don’t want it, according to polls. Ten thousand volunteers have quit. Cities have refused to host athletes. Locals see domestic sport cancelled, yet 105,000 flying in to play their own.

The financial cost is too high for it not to happen. So, it must go ahead at any cost

The other group whose opinion should be sought are the athletes. Many are conflicted. Many are reluctant to speak out. But neither of these are being listened to anyway. Its fate is handcuffed by the financial interdependency of the Japanese government, broadcasters, sponsors, and the International Olympic Committee.

The financial cost is too high for it not to happen. So, it must go ahead at any cost. “The Tokyo Olympics will be held in a safe and secure manner,” the Japanese government repeats on a loop. What convinced me was the World Triathlon race in Yokohama, less than 25 miles from Tokyo. As a Covid-compliant exercise, it was immaculate. Triathletes were complimentary on every detail.

Dissenting voices were unwelcome, but it was clear the Covid protocols worked. It was the epitome of a safe and secure racing environment. Triathletes fly in. Their only respite from hotel room quarantine is a turbo or treadmill in a different part of the hotel. Come race day, they’ll be bussed to and from the venue, where they race without fans.

Numerous Covid tests later they’ll fly home, with no interaction with the Japanese public. That’s the best-case scenario. And that’s just one sport of 33. None of this will stop us celebrating what’s to come. It’s not contradictory to believe it unwise for an event to take place, yet still champion the champions that emerge.

Those such as athletics chief Seb Coe have pleaded with the Japanese public to have faith it will be ‘safe and secure’. I’m confident it will be. But when sanitised to such degree you bleach away everything of value that comes from hosting an Olympics, it’s time to stop.

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