What impact will Covid have?
The greatest impact of Covid on the Games, other than the fact it is being held a year late, will be the absence of spectators. Venues won’t be silent, however, with “an immersive sound system” playing “sound created from previous Olympic Games” – which means that vocal ticket holders from many events at London 2012 will, in a manner of speaking, get to attend a second Olympics – while those watching at home will be able to “clap virtually” using an app.
Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, promised that competitors will somehow “feel in an Olympic stadium, surrounded by spectators and fans”. What they won’t feel, however, is each other: physical contact is one of several proscribed activities and official advice sent to athletes warns them to avoid: “Staying an unnecessarily long time in a space”, “unnecessary forms of physical contact such as hugs, high fives and handshakes”, “talking in constrained areas such as elevators”, “contact with residents of Japan”, “facing each other in ice baths”, “shouting, cheering and singing”, and “eating meals with Games participants who have been in Japan for more than 14 days”. Even judokas are not allowed to shake hands, which is confusing because they are allowed to spend five minutes grappling with each other. Despite all precautions, for some athletes, Covid has already delivered the ultimate nightmare – an end to their Olympic dreams, having tested positive too close to competition after arriving in Japan.
Are the medals interesting?
All the medals have been made entirely using recycled metal, harvested from the 6.21m used mobile phones and 79,985 tonnes of assorted small electronic devices (including more phones) donated in a two-year Japan-wide campaign.
They ended up with 32kg of gold, 2,200kg of bronze and 3,500kg of silver (gold medals will actually be made of gold-plated silver). The medals are supposed to “resemble rough stones that have been polished and now shine”. So, not rough stones then.
“The brilliance of the medals signifies the warm glow of friendship symbolising people all over the world holding hands,” organisers announced, shortly before they banned holding hands. The ribbon uses traditional Japanese motifs including ichimatsu moyo (checks) and kasane no irome (the layering of different colours to achieve the ideal shade). Because of Covid, successful athletes will have to hang their medals round their own necks.
What’s the Olympic Stadium like?
Tokyo’s venues are split into two main clusters, with 16 specially constructed arenas in the Tokyo Bay zone and a further 10 inside the Heritage zone, some of which were also used in 1964. “By using major venues constructed for the 1964 Games, we embrace the spirit of inheritance,” read Tokyo’s bid document.
Though it’s not clear how pulling down major venues and rebuilding them from scratch – as they have done with the Olympic stadium – using enormous quantities of wood brought in from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (and 170,000 sheets of tropical plywood from Malaysia and Indonesia) embraces such a spirit.
“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” the stadium’s architect, Kengo Kuma, says of his preference for wood. One drawback of using all that wood became clear when it dawned on designers that they had forgotten to incorporate an Olympic cauldron, and with no obvious location in the stadium that wouldn’t constitute a clear risk of imminent conflagration, the flame will just have to burn elsewhere.
What of the traditional pre-Olympic water-quality scare stories?
Flourishing like bacteria in a stream of raw sewage, as usual. Multiple reports this month described the triathlon and open-water swimming area in Odaiba Marine Park as smelling “like a toilet”, and if there’s inconveniently timed heavy rainfall millions of litres of untreated sewage could be flushed into the bay.
Happily last year an official told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that so long as the weather is good “neither the odour of the water nor the fecal coliform level will become an issue”, and organisers have poured 22,200 cubic metres of sand into the bay in the hope of attracting cleansing organisms, installed a triple-layer polyester fibre screen they say is “effective in controlling E. coli bacteria and other bacteria”, and built storage tanks designed to temporarily store most of the bay-bound sewage.
In happier water-based venue news, a short distance away at the Sea Forest Waterway special floats installed to stop waves destabilising canoers and rowers became so popular with oysters that they sank. Some 14 tonnes of oysters – roughly equal to four hippopotamuses, seven rhinos, or 14 adult walruses – have since been removed to get them bobbing once again.
Enough negativity – surely there’s at least one item of heartwarming venue-based news?
Very much so! In 1964 the swimming took place in the now treasured Yoyoki National Gymnasium, designed by Kenzo Tange. Rowan Moore, the Observer’s architecture critic, recently described the building as “a swooping marvel of cantilevers and hanging roofs and hovering concrete” that “would still get it described as ‘futuristic’ if it were built now”.
The Yoyoki Gymnasium now has a solid floor (it will host handball and badminton), so a brand new Aquatics Centre had to be built for these Games. The architect chosen to design it was Paul Noritaka Tange, Kenzo’s son. “I came to see him as ‘the Master’ — and there was no way I’d ever exceed him,” Paul says of his father, who died in 2005. “A really strong feeling of respect for my father is part of why I wanted to do this.”
Is everything going to happen in the middle of the night?
Well, some of it. Tokyo is eight hours ahead of the UK, which means that the big events scheduled for their evening, such as key athletics finals, will happen in the British early afternoon. So long as they don’t have work to do, viewers in Europe will be able to see many of the Games’ highlights live.
But even in the Olympic Stadium there will be several big events that are less conveniently timed, with men’s and women’s long jump finals, the hurdles finals, and many heptathlon events happening in the early hours of the British morning.
In the swimming pool events are more evenly spread throughout the day, which means that Adam Peaty’s key race, the 100m breaststroke, is scheduled to start at 3.12am on the morning of 26 July. There are a few disciplines that will be enjoyed live in Britain only by the nocturnal, such as rowing (which will never start before 12.30am BST, or finish after 4.20am) and skateboarding (which runs from 1am until about 4.30am).
Isn’t it going to be rather hot?
Well that depends who you ask. In the Tokyo 2020 bid document it was suggested of the period from late July to early August that “with many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best”.
But last year Makoto Yokahari, professor of environment and urban planning at the University of Tokyo and an advisor to the organising committee, said that the combination of high temperatures and soaring humidity makes the Japanese capital “the worst [host city] in history”, and that a repeat of high temperatures seen at this time of year in 2019 and 2020 would mean “it is going to be a nightmare”.
When a beach volleyball test event was held two years ago, competitors found it hard to stand on the sizzling sand, one said the heat made it “really difficult to stay mentally focused all the time”, volunteers were issued with medicinal ice creams and full-blown snow machines were trained on the spectators (which had the effect of leaving them wet and angry, but still hot).
In 1964, when Tokyo last staged the Olympics, the Games were held in October, when the weather is cooler and drier. But since NBC’s awful viewing figures, when the 2000 Sydney Olympics took place in September, the July-August berth has become immovable (NBC paid $1.5m, about $13m in today’s money, to broadcast the 1964 Tokyo Games, the first on the network. Their latest contract, which covers the three summer Games from 2024 to 2032, cost them $7.75bn or £5.67bn).
What of Team GB’s chances?
Britain’s team of 376 – bigger than any Games outside Britain – heads to Japan without the burden of medal targets. “We haven’t put a target on it and we won’t,” said the chef de mission, Mark England. This is mainly because in a Covid-affected sporting world it’s hard to know how good anyone is.
“Competition data in terms of where we stand against our main competitors across the world really isn’t there,” England says, though he thinks “we are medal competitive in a significant number of sports”. In the last three summer Games Britain has finished fourth (2008), third (2012) and second (2016), which constitutes massive overachievement – another top-five finish is the aim.
Are Japan any good?
A top-five finish is the hosts’ aim, too. Japan may have won fewer gold medals in athletics than Usain Bolt (the Jamaican winning eight to seven) but they are one of the great modern Olympic nations, rarely dipping out of the top 10 in the medals table. The aim for these Games was 30 golds, nearly double their all-time high of 16, though the Japanese Olympic Committee has recently rowed back from this figure and said that instead “we want to have each athlete be able to do their best and their utmost”. Key home hopes for these games include Ryo Kiyuna, the karate king, and judoka Uta Abe, whose brother Hifumi is also in the team.
Are any of the athletes surprisingly old or depressingly young?
Sadly Hiroshi Hoketsu, who competed in the dressage aged 71 in 2012 (coming joint 34th) and missed out on Rio only because his horse caught a cough, was left out of Japan’s team, but the equestrianism events remain very much the ones to watch for ageing fans still dreaming of sporting excellence.
Australia lead this particular race, with their delegation including both 66-year-old grandmother of four Mary Hanna and 62-year-old Andrew Hoy, for whom this is an eighth Games. “I have never set out to break records,” he says. “I am just a country boy who loves his horses.”
At the other end of the scale, Syrian sensation Hend Zaza will become the youngest Olympian for more than half a century when she picks up her table-tennis bat at the tender age of 12, leaving the Japanese skateboarder Kokona Hiraki, four months her senior, and her 13-year-old British rival, Sky Brown, very much in the shade.
Who’s definitely going to win?
There aren’t many sure things at the Olympics but Lisa Carrington, New Zealand’s queen of the sprint kayak, makes a pretty strong case. She comes into the Games having not lost a K1 200m race for nearly a decade, in which time she has won two Olympic golds and all seven available world championships.
This must be particularly irritating for Marta Walczykiewicz, 2016 silver medallist and six-time world championship runner-up. Both athletes seemed happy with their last Olympic experiences. “We were just so happy for each other. She’s so quick, she’s amazing,” said Carrington. “My dreams came true after Rio. I treated it like a gold medal,” said Walczykiewicz – but surely all these second places must be starting to grate.