Women's Sport: Is Tokyo 2020 really going ahead “without problem, as planned”?

The unprecedented spread of coronavirus is having far-reaching effects on the world of sports with countless leagues and competitions already cancelled or postponed.

A new wave of cancellations was triggered last week after the World Health Organisation decided to officially recognise the coronavirus outbreak as a global pandemic.

Yet, despite recent developments, one competition seems reluctant to make any shotgun moves … this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, set to begin on 24 July.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has even made a public statement that the tournament will go ahead “without problem, as planned”.

The traditional torch lighting ceremony has already gone ahead without spectators in Olympia, Greece. The rest of Greece’s torch relay was then suspended to avoid crowds congregating to catch a glimpse of the Olympic flame.

As it stands, Japan’s torch relay is going ahead as planned, starting in Fukushima on 26 March, and Mr Abe expects to be able to watch it himself.

“The Olympic flame will arrive in Japan. I’d like to go to Fukushima to witness the start of the Olympic torch relay,” he said at a press conference reported by Kyodo News.

Immediate impacts for athletes

As much as Prime Minister Abe might be optimistic that the impact of covid-19 might have diminished by July 24, there are tangible effects for athletes right now.

Many Olympic qualifying tournaments have already been postponed or cancelled as a result of the rapid spread of coronavirus across the world. This has left athletes yet to make qualifying times or distances in a state of limbo – unable to improve their rankings or book their tickets to Tokyo.

GB Rower, Victoria Thornley told BBC Wales it was “unthinkable” that the Olympics would be cancelled or postponed, but added that she understood the health of athletes and spectators should be considered. 

“I think there’s still quite a long time until [the Olympics]. I put my trust in the people who organise it and yes, it’s the pinnacle of our sport and you get to show the world what you’ve prepared in the last four years in your biggest performance on the day.”

Harder to detect doping

Last week, the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) announced it would be closely monitoring gaps in testing in regions impacted by the coronavirus.

It is easy to see how doping could be impacted amid a pandemic, with priority given to the protection of both athletes and testers in high-risk areas. Athletes could see these gaps as an opportunity to use illegal substances in the run-up to Tokyo.

China’s own CHINADA suspended activity on 3 February at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in the country. CHINADA has since announced it would be resuming testing of athletes with particular emphasis on “higher-risk categories and sports”.

An Olympics without fans or a historic postponement?

Prime Minister Abe believes the Olympics is likely to go ahead as planned and is currently supported by the International Olympic Committee who expressed its “full commitment” to the Tokyo Games.

Yet, surely there must be contingency plans to ensure the protection of not only athletes but also the people of Japan?

Tokyo’s Opening Ceremony alone would see around 60,000 people assemble in the Olympic Stadium. With these large numbers come huge risks of infection.

Across the world, countries are deploying tactics of self-isolation with many told to work from home, large gatherings being prohibited and international travel all but grinding to a halt. At first leagues and competitions like the NBA, Serie A and the Europa League stopped spectators attending matches, now the leagues have been cancelled altogether.

At the moment it is hard to see the Olympics going ahead as normal with packed out stadiums and fanzones. An Olympics without fans is almost incomprehensible but could be a possibility.

A more likely option, however, is that this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo is postponed and athletes and fans must wait even longer before the greatest stage of sports returns.

Just four months before the Games are set to begin it looks as if, for the first time in its history, the Olympic Games will be postponed.

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