People once spoke of a forty year Olympic curse. In 1940 Japan was due to host the Summer and Winter Games in Tokyo and Sapporo respectively; both were cancelled due to World War Two. In 1980, the Moscow Games were hit with mass boycotts due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Over 66 countries refused to attend, including the USA and China.
In 2020… well, I’m sure you’re fully aware of what has happened in 2020 so far. The entire Western world has been completely upended and no one is yet sure of anything much at this writing. In early April, the Tokyo Games were suspended for almost exactly a year, the first time in history an Olympic competition has ever not started on time. Everyone involved, from the IOC to the Japanese government to the organising committee to the sport federations is currently 100% on message and behind the Games starting as re-planned in July 2021.
As many people have noted, it’s not entirely as simple as that. Some have suggested that without a widely available vaccine, the Games will simply have to be cancelled – it would be impossible to gather that many people from all over the world safely. While it’s likely that many of the athletes would be willing to take that chance, and national Olympic committees would be sure to test anyone going – the spectators are a different matter entirely.
It seems to have been made abundantly clear that it is ‘2021 or bust’, there will be no further delay. Indeed, the current plan seems to be ‘we’re doing it, corona or no corona’, with a notably more bullish tone in recent weeks.
Cancelling the Games still seems almost unthinkable – although postponing them seemed almost equally unthinkable just a few months ago. The immense sunk costs – $25 billion or more, by some estimates – without any revenue returning would cripple the Japanese economy further, and would be a catastrophic loss of face for the country. The Summer Olympics is also the financial engine that keeps tens of thousands of people employed worldwide, and funds most of the operations of the international federations (such as World Archery) too. The Winter Olympics, now following the Summer Games by just six months, might go too.
Some have again suggested that the Games will be held behind closed doors, which would allow the crucial TV coverage to continue. European football matches are currently being held and televised with added crowd noise, it’s not impossible we could see the same next year too.
For all the talk about the essential Games atmosphere, it should be remembered that 99.5% of the Olympic audience will only ever see an Olympic event on television in their lifetime, and many aspects of the Games are now ultimately subordinate to the demands of television, because of the revenue it generates.
Or perhaps the doors will be ‘semi-closed’; restricted to Tokyo citizens only to reduce travel, or only spectators that can prove they are coronavirus-free – or both.
There may be further knock-on effects too, related to the mass postponement of major events this year to a crammed-busy 2021. Some have suggested that Paris 2024 might be delayed a year too. As now seems usual in the age of coronavirus: change is the only thing that seems certain.
Many archery Olympians – or due-to-be Olympians – have welcomed the year’s delay. For some former medallists, such as Lisa Unruh and Michele Frangilli, who are both recovering from shoulder surgery, the postponement gives them another chance of an Olympic cap which would otherwise be in doubt. For the major national sides such as France and Turkey who are still without an Olympic spot, it may test the coaching and psychology setups to the limit.
Many national teams have completely restarted their selection procedures for 2021, including Korea, the biggest national fish of all – which means that former champions Ki Bo Bae and Chang Hye Jin, both of whom had fallen out of the process last year, might just be able to make another Games, and who knows, maybe even medal.
Some teams in well-isolated facilities have managed to continue shooting and training throughout the pandemic; while others have had to work at home. One thing is certain, with no more international outdoor competition this year, and the indoor calendar in serious doubt too, it will be whoever keeps their head and stays coolest that will thrive when the build-up competitions and qualifiers restart next year.
USA Olympian Mackenzie Brown was clear about what lay in front of her. “I am completely behind this decision to postpone the Games. I believe to be in line with the Olympic spirit. We are in crazy times right now and it’s difficult to keep very optimistic, but I’ve been training for four years for my dreams and I will continue to train and be ready at any moment to put on my best performance. It’s hard to wait for the next competition, but it’s what I was born to do, in my opinion, and I will continue to push on.”
As for what will happen next year: Korea still remain favourites, probably, for all five gold medals available, although the results over the last year or two give ever more pause for thought as to the possibilities. The Taipei challenge is ever stronger, but we all said that last time around. But you feel the women’s team victory at the World Championships has wedged open a door, psychologically at least. The team events will likely be won, or lost, inside someone’s head.
It would be great for the sport to see a less-fancied but dangerous archery nation – am thinking Kazakhstan, Indonesia, or Vietnam – push through and make a podium. It also seems like there will be a lot of veterans out representing next year; it would also be fantastic to see an older archer find the sixth gear and take a prize.
The last Summer Games to be held, despite much doomsaying and a handful of hair-raising incidents, in the end went off almost without a hitch. However it was held in an atmosphere of empty stadiums amid a populace who almost (but not quite) seemed to turn their backs on the competition. Rio was a city mired with debt problems and inequality, and in a country going through political turmoil and a murderous recession – and the Olympic movement isn’t really part of the collective consciousness in Brazil. (Interestingly, the Paralympics in Rio were far better attended than the Olympics; a combination of dirt-cheap tickets and increasing familiarity saw both weekends in the main Olympic Park sell out).
Few host cities on Earth could have lived up to 2012. London sold out almost every ticket across the Games, which no Olympics has ever got close to before, and may never again. In Rio, the threat of Zika and crime scared off more casual tourists, whatever the milder reality might have been. When even the athletics session for Usain Bolt running the 100m, an event watched by a total of two billion people in 2012, failed to sell out on the ground, you know something is very wrong. Selling tickets won’t, at least, be a problem in Olympics-mad Japan next year.
When Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, on a grand scale it seemed like a genuinely brilliant idea. The economy was going through the roof. Oil was at record highs. It fit past Olympic narratives of a national power thrusting fully into the world after a long period in the wilderness; Tokyo 1964, a modern industrial nation emerging from losing a war, and similar tales at Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992. Everybody wanted it to work. Brazil, with all its extraordinary natural advantages and increasing financial clout, finally taking a place at the forefront of the modern world with a Rio Olympics as a catalyst.
But there’s a grim proverb popular over there: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” It didn’t quite happen as everyone might have hoped, and the Rio Games perhaps has destroyed the narrative that the Olympics is a globally transformative power. Politicians and taxpayers are much more wary, and in the last decade or so dozens of nascent bids around the world for multi-sport Games have never got past a local mayor or an opinion poll. The Winter Olympics is an increasingly difficult sell; the expense versus the return looks even less attractive than the Summer Games.
A positive outcome?
The next two editions of the summer Games, in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028, seem likely to be the last of the same old model; the Games in one city, one vastly expensive expression of soft Western power. The double award is a testament to the IOC’s flexibility in keeping the model alive. After that, the Games will either move to a multi-city model or you’ll likely only be seeing it in places with autocratic governments. Possibly both.
The past decade has been a difficult time for the Olympic movement. It’s been difficult to be positive about much in 2020, but if the coronavirus era comes to a close next year, via ‘herd immunity’ or a vaccine or both, a full-steam ahead Tokyo Games might be a genuine collective moment for the world, that will be facing plenty of other existential problems over the next decades. It might even become the defining moment for the Olympic movement. It could be the greatest Games ever.