The rescheduled Tokyo Olympics will be the centerpiece of a crammed sporting year in 2021, as leagues who had their calendars wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic try to fill in the gaps — even as a another wave hits.
While the games will still be called the 2020 Olympics, they have been altered by COVID-19.
Tokyo 2020 organizers and the Japanese government are struggling with increased costs and — despite the growing possibility of vaccines being available — whether to allow foreign visitors and what safeguards and restrictions will be in place.
In early December, Olympic organizers said the delayed Games will cost at least an extra $2.4 billion as the unprecedented peacetime postponement and a raft of pandemic health measures inflate a budget that was already over $13 billion.
Enthusiasm also appears to have waned in Japan. A poll in July showed just one in four people wanted to see the games held in 2021 — and that a majority backed another delay or cancellation.
“Whether it’s seen as too much or that we have done well to contain the costs, I think it depends on how you look at it,” Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said.
Organizers have reduced the number of free tickets, scaled down the opening ceremony and made savings on mascots, banners and meals, but so far have cut just $280 million.
“It will be simple rather than festive, but I hope it will be something moving that encourages people through the power of sport,” Muto said.
Tokyo 2020 officials are determined to go ahead next year, even if the pandemic has not receded.
They want to welcome foreign spectators and plan to waive quarantine requirements. They plan to require fans to wear masks and ask them to refrain from cheering and keep their ticket stubs for contact tracing.
Athletes will be asked to arrive late and leave early, minimize their time in the Olympic village, refrain from speaking loudly, avoid physical contact and wear masks when not competing or training. They will be screened on arrival and undergo tests every four to five days.
“I think the games will go off,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said this month. “What nobody is clearly across at the moment, is… whether we are going to have a stadium populated by good, noisy, passionate fans.”
The challenge for organizers is considerable, since the games bring together over 11,000 athletes from 206 countries, accompanied by at least 5,000 officials and coaches, 20,000 media representatives and 60,000 volunteers.
Meanwhile, other sports are maneuvering to minimize overlaps between their revamped schedules and the Olympic behemoth.
The NBA, which only finished its coronavirus-hit 2019-20 season on Oct. 12, agreed with its players union to start the new season Dec. 22. The regular season will be cut by 10 games and end on May 16.
This was partly to allow NBA players to compete in Tokyo, although since the playoffs could run until July 22, the day before the games start, some of the biggest stars could still miss the Olympics.
One event that has not, so far, publicly rethought its plans is the other marquee casualty of the summer: the European soccer championships.
It will still be called Euro 2020 and is scheduled to stick to the original 12-city format, though some member nations have reportedly been urging UEFA to put all the matches in one country.
The significance of staging the Olympics goes beyond sports.
Building on diplomatic gestures seen at the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018, there was reportedly talk of inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the Tokyo Games and holding a summit with South Korea, China, the United States and host Japan.
Another dominant theme in 2020, opposition to racism, also threatens to cause friction in Tokyo.
In early December, Coe pointedly gave the World Athletics President’s award to 400-meter runners John Carlos, Tommie Smith, both American, and Australian Peter Norman. Carlos and Smith each famously raised a gloved fist in a Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
“Sadly, their cause and what they so bravely stood for has not been consigned to the history books,” said Coe.
Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, quickly responded with irritation, saying any gestures opposing racism, such as taking a knee, would be against IOC rules prohibiting “political and religious marketing” at the games.