Will Japan be ready to host the delayed Olympics next year?
TOKYO (Kyodo July 22, 2020 (Mainichi Japan)) -- The ongoing pandemic crisis led to an unprecedented 12-month Olympic and Paralympic Games postponement, but with the coronavirus' spread going largely unchecked in some countries it is unclear whether even 2021 is a realistic option.
This Thursday the reset Olympic countdown clock will show there are 365 days to go until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games.
There are still more questions than answers about the July 23, 2021, start and what form the games will take. Namely, what do organizers have to do differently to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators?
"Keeping athletes who test negative for the virus 'clean' is going to be our basic goal," a Tokyo organizing committee source said.
Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto recently said the government is considering easing travel restrictions for foreign athletes who are due to compete at the Olympics and Paralympics.
Inbound travelers will most likely be required to undergo polymerase chain reaction tests before departure and upon arrival in Japan, though there are worries that some tests for the coronavirus are only about 70 percent accurate.
If a two-week quarantine period is imposed on arrivals into Japan, it would present a significant number of challenges, among them sourcing appropriate accommodations with access to training facilities that are both suitable for high-level competitors and safe from the coronavirus.
Though it would be ideal for every traveling athlete to self-isolate for two weeks before entering the Olympic village, a senior official of the local organizing committee said, "It's unrealistic for an athlete who needs to train to be quarantined."
The athletes village will house up to 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes and staff during the games. To prevent cluster outbreaks, athletes who will have to share bedrooms, cafeterias and buses could be subject to movement restrictions.
With strict virus-related protocols in place, restrictions will extend beyond the walls of the competition venues and encroach on athletes' games experiences, while fans will be making their share of sacrifices to allow the events to be held amid a pandemic.
"I don't know how strictly we can enforce these rules," another local organizing committee source said.
At this point, the International Olympic Committee's desire to hold the Tokyo Olympics with spectators in the stands and not behind closed doors seems aligned with the 2020 organizers' plans.
Fans who opt to keep their tickets rather than getting refunds must be willing to endure masks, temperature checks, longer than normal queues and the looming threat of coronavirus to become the first spectators in history to attend a rescheduled Olympics.
As with professional baseball and soccer leagues in Japan, they will probably have to adhere to a set of rules including no yelling, no high-fives, no hugging and no using fingers when whistling.
Imposing health screening measures for media and volunteer staff who are likely to interact with the athletes may be manageable, but tracking their activities outside of work hours to identify risk factors is not.
Up to 28,000 journalists and technical staff have been accredited for the Olympic Games, and with the scale of media coverage varying widely between countries, outlets and sports, there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all way to manage athlete interviews.
The organizing committee had hoped to recruit some 80,000 volunteers as well as cleaners, sales vendors and security guards but now, an organizing committee staffer said, "We will have to keep physical contact with athletes to a minimum."
Prof. Hiroyuki Kunishima, an infectious diseases expert at St. Marianna University School of Medicine in Kawasaki, said, "Pro baseball and J-League will serve as a test case."
Nippon Professional Baseball and J-League, Japan's professional soccer league, have resumed play after a months-long suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic but with new protocols and social distancing guidelines in place.
Sports events across the nation continue to feel the impact of the coronavirus as they adopt different strategies in response to the disruption. They may provide a glimpse of what is to come if the Olympics and Paralympics go ahead in 2021.
The Japan Swimming Federation has asked swimmers to keep at least one meter apart at the pool and refrain from having unnecessary conversations, while coaches are not allowed to talk loudly or use whistles.
Swimmers will find their locker room access limited at domestic meets, furniture removed to assure spacing, and are banned from using hair dryers.
The Japan Karatedo Federation announced health and safety protocols which include a ban on the use of "kiai," or the typical in-fight shouted attack, to prevent airborne infection risk.
The sound of a kiai plays a functional role in the sport, but Japan karate head coach Tetsuya Furukawa said the ban is "not going to last forever. We have to manage our emotions well and just follow safety guidelines."
The All Japan Judo Federation released a four-phase return-to-activity plan for athletes, issuing strict criteria for progressing through the stages.
Triathlon and running events are held outside, so athletes have a lower risk of coronavirus transmission than their counterparts who train and compete in confined spaces, large crowds included.
Still, the Japan Triathlon Union recommends that runners and cyclists stay 2 meters apart during the race, and try to stagger their positions rather than running or riding directly alongside or behind each other to avoid inhaling droplets or having them land on their bodies.
The sporting bodies say their return-to-play protocols will minimize the chances of infection for both athletes and team staff members.
But even with extensive planning, exhaustive manuals and a regulated set of guidelines, experts in infectious diseases say some infections are inevitable.
The development of a vaccine, or even a reliable treatment, would make the pneumonia-causing virus both less dangerous and less onerous to the health-care system.
But with no vaccine yet available and proven effective, games organizers must lay out potential scenarios for how large-scale, live events might be affected by the coronavirus.
The games' unprecedented delay has caused major logistical and financial headaches already, and fears of further waves of the coronavirus pandemic are seemingly playing out worldwide.
The IOC and Japan say that the Tokyo Olympics cannot be rescheduled again. But with a Kyodo News poll conducted July 17-19 showing only 23.9 percent of the Japanese public are in favor of the games going ahead in 2021 and health experts casting doubt on whether they can be held safely next summer, it seems that nothing more than a wait-and-see approach can be taken, at least for now.