Yes, there will be an Olympics in 2021, organizers say. Here's what they will look like
One of the defining sports moments of 2020 was an event that didn't actually happen: The 2020 Summer Olympics.
Postponed for one year to the summer of 2021 due to COVID-19, the Tokyo Games are scheduled to begin this July — and organizers insist that, no matter what happens with the virus between now and then, the Olympics can and will go on.
As we get ready to enter a new Olympic year, it's a good time to take stock of where things stand. Here's a primer on next summer's Games, what they'll look like and some of the ways they'll be different than those in years past.
The new dates
The Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin almost one year to the day after their originally-scheduled start date. They'll run from July 23 through August 8.
Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said this summer that the Games will not be postponed a second time, if they cannot be held on those dates. They'll just be canceled. But he and other organizers have expressed nothing but confidence and determination that the Games will go on.
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Japan's Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, said in September that the Games should be held "at any cost." And John Coates, a high-ranking official with the International Olympic Committee, said in one interview that "these will be the Games that conquered COVID."
Barring any changes, there will be just six months between the end of the Summer Games and the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.
There are expected to be roughly 11,000 athletes at the Tokyo Olympics. When the Games were postponed, 57% of those athletes had already secured their spots. The other 43% still had to qualify in a series of regional or national events.
The bulk of those Olympic qualifiers will take place in early 2021. For American athletes and fans, the month to watch is June. That's when swimming (June 13-20), track and field (June 18-27) and gymnastics (June 24-27) will hold their Olympic team trials.
IOC president Thomas Bach said last month that he has become increasingly confident that there will be fans at the Olympics next summer. But organizers have yet to announce any capacity limits, or fan attendance protocols — or whether crowds will be limited to Japanese citizens only, or if international fans can attend.
"(Japanese organizers) will particularly look into this situation for foreign spectators, but also for domestic spectators, and then take a decision there in spring next year," Bach said this month.
According to Kyodo News, organizers are considering the use of facial recognition technology at venues "to record spectators' faces and body surface temperatures, and to see if they are wearing masks." They will also likely ask fans to download a contact-tracing app on their phones.
The opening ceremony
The opening ceremony will likely look quite a bit different next summer.
Beyond the aforementioned question of fans, and the possibility that the opening ceremony could be staged in an empty or partially-empty stadium, there's also the traditional parade of athletes from every participating country — a celebration that, during COVID-19, could prove dangerous.
Coates, the IOC official overseeing the preparations for Tokyo, said last month that organizers might restrict the parade to only athletes and a handful of team officials, all of whom could be tested prior to their participation.
Japanese organizers have hinted at a simplified opening ceremony, with fewer frills. But Bach has stressed the importance of allowing the Japanese to make the ceremony their own, given the wide reach and influence of this made-for-TV moment.
"The opening ceremony is the opportunity to present the host country, for the host country to present itself and to present the culture of Japan and the hospitality of Japan," he said.
The Olympic village
This is one of the few areas in which the IOC has provided concrete guidance.
Though the Olympic village is typically the heart of the Games, allowing athletes from different countries to meet and mingle, it will have a far different feel in 2021. Earlier this month, the IOC announced that athletes should arrive no more than five days prior to their first day of competition and leave no more than 48 hours after they're done competing, an attempt to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
Coates has also said athletes will be discouraged from sightseeing in Tokyo.
Bach has repeatedly referred to a "toolbox" of COVID-19 countermeasures for next summer's Games — a laundry list of restrictions and protocols that organizers could ultimately implement, depending on the situation at the time with COVID-19.
The IOC president has declined to go into detail on what this "toolbox" contains, but it's likely that testing will be at its core. Athletes will be tested for COVID-19 prior to arriving in Tokyo, and they will likely be tested regularly while there. The development and availability of rapid tests could play a role in the frequency of this testing.
As for vaccines, Bach has suggested the IOC might help pay for vaccines, to ensure they're available for those present at the Games. He's said athletes will not be required to get vaccinated before competition, but he does encourage them to do so.
"It's not only about themselves," Bach said this month, "it's also about the solidarity with their fellow athletes, and it's about (contributing) to the safe conditions which we will offer during these postponed Olympic Games."
Olympic critics have said it would be unethical for young, healthy athletes to be vaccinated before higher-risk populations, including those in developing countries.
The postponement of the Games and aforementioned COVID-19 countermeasures will not be cheap.
Tokyo organizers estimate the postponement could amount to roughly $2.8 billion in additional costs — and that's on top of initial estimates that were already growing. When Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Games, it said they would cost $7.3 billion. Then, prior to the postponement, it said they would cost $12.6 billion.
Most of these costs are being shouldered by the Japanese government and domestic sponsors.
The IOC, which makes roughly three-quarters of its income from selling broadcast rights to the Olympics, had said it would chip in roughly $650 million. But Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee, has since said organizers do not expect to receive that amount. "Tokyo’s costs are Tokyo’s costs," Muto said.
Potential athlete protests
As Olympic organizers mull issues related to COVID-19, there is also a groundswell among athletes to amend an Olympic rule that prohibits protests on the podium or in the field of play at the Games. Athletes believe they should be able to take a knee on the podium or raise a fist, for example, as a means of protesting racial inequality.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee took a significant stand on the issue this month by announcing that it would not punish any of its athletes who protest in Tokyo. The IOC has long been wary of the idea, fearing it could turn the podium into a place for political arguments. The Athletes Commission, meanwhile, said it is still soliciting feedback on the issue.
It is unclear whether athletes will be allowed to protest in Tokyo — or, if not, whether they will protest anyways.
Russia's presence figures to be another subplot in Tokyo.
After a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport earlier this month, in relation to another doping violation, the Russians will be allowed to field a team and wear their country's colors, but they must be called "neutral athletes from Russia." Their flag cannot be present, and their national anthem cannot be played.
The decision has prompted controversy in the anti-doping community, with some feeling the punishment amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist for a country that has been violating anti-doping rules for nearly a decade now.