Olympic Stadium in Tokyo hosts 420 athletes competing across 20 events
11 test events have now taken place in Japan since last month with no positive cases
Justin Gatlin on his way to winning the men’s 100m race during an athletics test event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Photograph: Shuji Kajiyama/PA
Dubbing it the Ready Steady Tokyo meeting may have sounded a tad upbeat and still the running of it went perfectly smoothly, complete with some pointers to what might unfold on the grander scale later this summer.
The second stop on the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold series, the meeting was the first - and only - full test event inside the Olympic Stadium before the Tokyo Games get underway there with the opening ceremony on July 23rd (or 75 days later). In looks at least things are definitely ready.
The 60,100 seats were empty of any spectators, the atmosphere distinctly muted too, only some performances certainly stood out, not least 39 year-old Justin Gatlin winning the 100 metres. The American sprinter is on course it seems for his fourth Olympics. Things are heating up in other ways: it was 33 degrees inside the stadium, even in early May.
In all 420 athletes competed across 20 events, some with heats and finals, spread over two sessions, morning and then evening. No Irish athletes made the journey, with only a handful of international athletes present in part after Tokyo extended its state of emergency to the end of May in a bid to further suppress cases of Covid-19.
Effectively a dress rehearsal for how the track and field events will run from July 30th to August 8th, including the various Covid-19 countermeasures in and around the stadium, among those in attendance was World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, in Japan for the past week and also attending Wednesday’s test event in Sapporo, 800km north of Tokyo, the venue for the Olympic marathon and race walks.
“I recognise athletes coming for a test event in Tokyo is very different from thousands of competitors coming to this city over the course of the summer months,” said Coe. “The Covid protocols, particularly what World Athletics have developed over the last year and a half - with health and science teams who are extremely good - athletes have consistently helped deliver events in a safe and secure environment.
“Just recently, a week ago, I was in Poland for the World Relays. We have 31 countries. We had 700 competitors, and not one of those competitors left having tested positive, and the protocols and the systems in place were clear”.
Gatlin was one of the few international athletes to send out a message: at 39, 17 years after winning the Olympic 100m title in Athens 2004, later sitting out four years with a doping ban, he won the 100m in 10.24 seconds from Japan’s Shuhei Tada (10.26). That race coming with a reminder that some things can always go wrong after their top sprinter Yoshihide Kiryu was disqualified after a false start.
“I felt beyond safe”, Gatlin said. “I was tested every day, the bubble is successful. The measures that are in place keep everyone safe.”
Earlier in the day there had been a small silent protest against the Games going ahead outside the nearby Japanese Olympic committee offices, and Coe was also questioned about some of the anti-Games sentiment.
“Why should the Olympics take place? Because they are the premier sporting event in a four-year cycle. They are very much more than a sporting event. I can’t think of any other activity which has the ability to pull communities in amid differences of ethnicity, belief or geography, bounding together in the way that a major sporting event can.
“I speak to the athletes all the time, I am consistently bowled over by the way they are dealing with, by the day, some of these restrictions and some of these added challenges.
“Is it perfect? No. Are they accepting of that situation? Yes. The vast majority of athletes I speak to wanting to get into the Games are understanding that it will not be the type of Games they’ve experienced before.
“I think everybody is in the same boat here. In track and field we know the athletes are not going to be in the village until a few days beforehand. The chances of them being in holding camps are limited. But they still know they would rather be here than sit out the dance. It’s important for them”.
World high jump champion Mutaz Barshim made his first appearance outside of his home country for two years, tying with Japan’s national champion Naoto Tobe, another possible medal contender.
Despite the state of emergency, 11 test events have taken place in Japan since last month without a single positive Covid-19 case being reported out of any. Still it seems the Japanese public aren’t so convinced, several surveys indicating the majority don’t want the Games to go ahead this July. Sunday’s event may or may not have improved some matters on that front.