Tokyo Olympics 2020: Ahead of Japan visit, IOC chief Thomas Bach confident fans will attend Games


With just over 250 days remaining for the deferred Tokyo Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach expressed confidence that fans could be in attendance for the showpiece event next year. Bach, however, refused to say whether international fans could travel to Tokyo for the Olympics and the Paralympics in just under nine months from now.

On Sunday, Bach will undertake a four-day visit to Tokyo for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of the Tokyo Games by a year. In a glimpse of how complex and restricted the international travel situation has become, the IOC president said that the delegation travelling to Tokyo was already quarantining in Lausanne before flying out and that they would all undergo additional COVID-19 tests.

Addressing a virtual press conference at the end of an IOC Executive Board meeting on Wednesday, Bach was asked if he would discuss the prospect of cancellation of the Games when in Tokyo. Bach responded with a monosyllabic ‘no’.

“This visit comes at an important time,” said Bach. “We’re at a critical stage of putting together a toolbox of COVID-19 counter-measures. We hope with this visit we can give even more confidence to athletes and participants about the Games being held in a safe environment. The significance of this visit is high. The message we want to give the Japanese people is that we’re fully committed to Tokyo 2020 and that it will happen in a safe environment.”

In a survey conducted by Japan News Network in July this year, 77 percent of respondents had said they didn’t think the Games could be held in 2021.

“We are very confident about having the Olympics next year,” said Bach, who said that at the moment there was no decision made on the exact number of spectators who will be allowed in the stands. “Having seen the different test events in Japan, we can be more and more confident that we will have a reasonable number of spectators in attendance at Olympic and Paralympic venues. How many, and under what conditions depends on future developments.

“I cannot give a deadline about the presence of international fans. With them, it’s the same for athletes and officials. We have to see what counter-measures we need to put in place to ensure a safe environment. Depending on this, we can also make a decision on spectators and give international visitors a clear indication under which circumstances they can attend the Games,” he said.

Having fans in attendance for the Games is a big factor of the appeal of the Olympics for athletes, shuttler Chirag Shetty had told Firstpost in July while discussing the possibility of the Games being held in the absence of a vaccine.

Fans enter a baseball stadium before a Japanese baseball league game between the Hanshin Tigers and the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Yokohama on 30 October. AP Photo

Bach cited the baseball event at Yokohama — where Japan carried out a ‘high-tech experiment’ to see whether sporting events could be held under 80 percent fan capacity — and the one-day exhibition event of gymnastics at Tokyo, where athletes from United States, China and Russia competed along with Japanese gymnasts. The Tokyo event — called Friendship and Solidarity Competition — had nearly 2,000 fans present in the Yoyogi No 1 Gymnasium. While they followed measure that have now become commonplace — such as wearing face masks at all time, sanitising their hands regularly, getting their body temperature checked, and remaining socially distanced — they were also instructed not to shout to avoid spreading droplets. Athletes from the three visiting countries, meanwhile, were asked to quarantine at home for 14 days before flying to Japan. Once in Tokyo, they were requested to stay in their Tokyo hotels in isolation besides undergoing coronavirus tests daily.

Japan's Kohei Uchimura competes in an international gymnastics meet on Sunday at Tokyo's Yoyogi National Stadium First Gymnasium. AP Photo

“Tokyo and Japan have demonstrated that they can organise international events even under the restrictions and conditions in place. In nine months from now, we can be sure — given the advancement in vaccines and rapid testing — that we will have better tools to counter COVID-19 by July. This is giving everyone a lot of confidence.”

After months of uncertainty over what sort of restrictions the postponed Games will be held next year, hopes were raised about Tokyo 2020 being conducted in some semblance of normalcy by the announcement of Pfizer that its vaccine was 90 percent effective.

Bach was asked if IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers would look to buy its own supply of vaccines to distribute to athletes who have qualified for Tokyo 2020 if multiple vaccines were available by the spring or summer of next year.

Bach did not rule out the possibility. He said they were in contact with the World Health Organisation and a number of vaccine manufacturers ‘to be informed’ about what’s happening on the vaccine front.

“There are different options under consideration about how vaccines can be made available,” said Bach. But he said that IOC was of the opinion that the first priority for vaccines should be doctors and medical professionals, high-risk groups, ‘people in need’, and those ‘keeping our societies alive’.

“We will have further discussion with experts, vaccine manufacturers, governments to see how with vaccines we can ensure a safe environment for everybody in Tokyo,” he said.

Qualification conundrum

As things stand, 57 percent of quota places have been allocated for the Olympics. With COVID-19 cases rising across Europe — forcing fresh nation-wide lockdowns — and caseloads staying high in countries like India and USA, hosting qualification tournaments has become a challenge for international federations. On Tuesday, United World Wrestling, the world governing body for the sport, called off the World Championships which were to be held in Belgrade in December.

“We have to ensure a fair qualification system for allocating the remaining places. The problem that IFs and IOC are facing is that you will hardly find a place on this planet where you can get athletes from all over the world to participate. Therefore, IFs are looking at holding qualifying tournaments in spring next year. There are also different scenarios under consideration such as turning world qualification events into regional and continental qualifiers, or using world rankings,” said Bach.

“It will also need a lot of flexibility from athletes, because they will not be in a situation that they’d be usually nine months before an Olympics. They cannot establish their period of training (as under normal circumstances) and cannot determine when they want to peak. It’s not easy. Athletes are not happy about this, but they’re understanding of the need for flexibility.”

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