Tokyo 2020 on a knife edge as rumours spread as quickly as Covid

Sensationalist headlines and the constant fear of a phone ping have added to Games jitters and clouded sporting anticipation

In Tinderbox Tokyo, on the eve of the first sporting action of these troubled Olympics, everyone appears to have the jitters. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, admits to sleepless nights. Athletes and journalists increasingly fear their Games could end with a ping on their phone and a 14-day spell in quarantine. And when Toshiro Muto, head of the Tokyo organising committee, was asked on Tuesday whether the Games could yet be cancelled, his vague reply became interpreted as a hint the Olympics could yet be in peril at the 11th hour.

Such headlines did not merely jump the gun. They also pole‑vaulted spectacularly clear of the cavalry.

When the question had been put to Muto, he merely replied: “We can’t predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases. So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases.” It sounded like a bland comment from a bland bureaucrat. Yet it was rapidly spun into a major breaking story.

By the time it had been eventually shot down by several well-placed sources and Tokyo 2020, who insisted the headlines were “extremely far” from what Muto had actually said, it was too late. The story had gone around the world. Few writing it bothered to point out that on Monday Tokyo recorded 727 new infections, the lowest figure for several days.

But the episode was entirely in keeping with these flit and flustered Games, where rumours spread as quickly as the virus. Those in charge are praying that when the sport finally kicks off the mood will shift from angst to the action, from fear to the field of play.

Could it happen? Potentially. One Japanese journalist in the media centre on Tuesday told the Guardian that she had detected a change in recent days: from outright hostility to the tens of thousands of people arriving for the Olympics to a sense of “sadness” that they would be held without spectators.

It was perhaps also notable that Bach, speaking at the IOC Session in Tokyo, tried to soften the perception of his organisation, which has been seen as ramming through these Games on an unwilling Japanese public.

“We had doubts every day,” Bach admitted. “We deliberated and we discussed. There were sleepless nights. Some asked why we did not express these doubts. Some interpreted this even as a sign that we blindly forge ahead at any price.

Thomas Bach
In admitting sleepless nights about the Tokyo 2020 buildup, the IOC’s Thomas Bach has never sounded more human. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

“Our doubts could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Olympic Games could have fallen to pieces. This is why we had to keep these doubts to ourselves. This today I can admit and say it, it also weighed on us, it weighed on me.”

Bach has rarely sounded so human. Some long-term IOC‑ologists also detected he was on a charm offensive. Behind the scenes, however, there is still tension between the IOC and the organisers and government – including over the late ban on spectators.

Such concerns are voiced publicly by Michael Payne, a former senior marketing executive at the IOC for nearly two decades and an influential insider. “When you see baseball stadiums full, even if it’s technically just outside the Tokyo area, people ask themselves: ‘Why can’t you have the Olympics at half-capacity?’ It doesn’t add up. And I think there is a question mark as to what’s going on.”

Payne also questions whether the Olympics has become the perfect punching bag for Japanese politicians with an election looming. “There is universal acknowledgment that the government dropped the ball. It has one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the world of any developed nation – and it wasn’t for lack of resources. It was just the bureaucracy of approving. But now you suddenly have the Olympics as the perfect fall guy and distraction from the shortcomings of the vaccine rollout programme.”

Whatever your view, most inside the Tokyo bubble accept that these Games are balanced on a perilous knife edge. In a best-case scenario, the action for fans on TV is spectacular, while a couple of early Japanese gold medals and a further drop in Covid cases leads to some fans inside stadiums in the final week. In the worst case, the spread of Covid inside the athletes’ village and elsewhere leads to chaos and recriminations.

Meanwhile in the media centre on Tuesday there was palpable anger after a number of journalists were told they had to stay in their rooms for 14 days after having close contact with a Covid passenger on their flights to Tokyo.

They include the insidethegames journalist Philip Barker, and the entire staff at BBC Scotland at these Games. It is understood that Barker, who has no symptoms and has repeatedly tested negative, even has to have his breakfast passed to him every morning by a colleague.

Journalists in these supposedly Covid-secure Games also play Tokyo Roulette every time they get on a packed media bus. Incredibly, the press are banned from walking 1,000 metres from the transport hub to the media centre and instead have to ride shuttle buses, with no apparent limits on passenger numbers. The risk of getting pinged is higher than all would like.

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The rules are very different for athletes, who are able to continue training if they test negative every day. Yet, naturally, they also worry their Olympic dreams could come to an abrupt end. “I think everyone’s trained so hard for this year so I just pray, fingers crossed, that we’ll be all right,” the Team GB track and field star Reece Prescod said. “I hope no else gets pinged. But you just don’t know.”

The tragedy of the eve of these pandemic Games is that Prescod’s sentiments are shared by thousands in Tokyo. And for now fear and uncertainty, instead of sustained excitement over the sporting thrills to come, remains the dominant emotion.


Sean Ingle in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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