Sonia O’Sullivan: How and why Tokyo Olympics need to go ahead

Strict testing and quarantine protocols in Australia can be used as an example

It’s a couple of months since I arrived back in Australia and spent the first 14 days in strict quarantine in a hotel in Brisbane, only allowed outside to exercise in a small courtyard for one hour each day. No exceptions then, and the same thing goes for anyone arriving now, most not allowed any fresh air breaks at all.

The Australian Open tennis is due to get underway on February 8th, three weeks later than its original slot, and all the overseas players are required to go through these similar strict quarantine requirements.

Like all international arrivals in Australia, the over 1,200 players and staff arriving on 15 charter planes organised by Tennis Australia over the next few days will be required to stay in their hotel rooms, provide a negative test result on arrival, and be tested daily for Covid-19.

The only provision is that the players will be allowed to practice and prepare for up to five hours a day, under strict police escort, at one of three designated secure training venues. In some ways their daily life probably won’t be much different from normal, apart from the lack of social interaction and confinement to their rooms for the other 19 hours each day.


Still when you see this level of precaution that’s being taken, plus the postponement of the F1 Melbourne Grand Prix from March until November because they’re unable to meet the strict protocols, you have to wonder what contingency plans the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are working on ahead of the postponed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, now just 189 days away.

Set aside

There is nothing the athletes can do but keep preparing and be prepared to compete. It’s not something you can worry about at this stage, although for the many athletes or teams who have yet to qualify all this is not easily set aside.

Australia is actually in a good place in contrast to the rest of the world, even if there are still internal state border restrictions. There are currently just six locally acquired cases in the whole of Australia, most cases being returned travellers in hotel quarantine that are already contained and so not a risk to the community.

If you look at the US and most of Europe, they are experiencing more new cases daily than when the Games were first postponed on March 24th, 2020. There was still hope up to that point that the Olympics would go ahead, the only difference now is that we know more about how the virus spreads, and there’s hope the vaccine rollout may present an option for athletes to ensure a safe Olympic village and arenas where each sport takes place.

In 1896, at the first Olympics, there were just 14 countries competing across nine sports; since then like many other things the growth and development has led to an event that includes 206 nations, across 33 sports with over 11,000 athletes. And that’s before the Paralympics get started in late August.

So when you look at the numbers some things don’t add up: only, like the Covid numbers that have been updated daily for the past 10 months, there comes a time when you have to put the numbers aside and focus on the practicalities of what can be done.

You just have to look around at the sporting events that actually took place in 2020, events that were made possible because they could be done safely. Although not all were without positive tests that stopped some athletes from competing or else requiring isolation and recovery before being allowed to rejoin.

If this were to happen ahead of the Olympics, any athlete travelling to the Games and who tests positive would not be allowed to compete. Any decision on what level the Games will be viable and able to go ahead will no doubt come down to accepting this, that some athletes and sports will be compromised, and that the Games will not be all inclusive. Athletes and their countries will have to agree beforehand that they may not be allowed to travel and they may be denied entry to the Games.

It won’t be fair, and a lot of people will not be happy, but I can’t see how else the Games can go ahead. This will also be an extra stress on athletes that’s hard to fathom, being denied the right to compete after years of preparation and commitment and achieving qualification.

This week the Australian Open qualifiers, which are being held in Doha, Qatar saw American player Denis Kudla test positive, but only informed as he completed his first round match against Moroccan Elliot Benchetrit. Kudla has been sent to isolate and is out of the tournament while Benchetrit is waiting news on if he is considered a close contact and must do the same. This is just one example in a single sport and in a controlled environment a much smaller scale than will be seen through the qualifying rounds at the Olympics.

Individual sports seem to have a greater chance of taking place. The marathon, for example, is pretty much set to go and more easily managed in a separate location in Sapporo; this may have been the most inspiring decision made to move the event outside of Tokyo.


Individual sports such as swimming and athletics also have the advantage of meeting a qualifying time then they are qualified for selection. Still I think we are looking at a sort of micro-Olympics, where some sports and athletes will be more secure in qualification than others.

It’s something we will have to accept if the Games are to go ahead, that many more athletes across a range of sports were ready but had to stay at home. It won’t be fair or inclusive but it may be the only compromise that will have to be accepted to allow the Games to go ahead.

All this may still be some six months away, but it’s just over two months to the date when the Olympics were postponed in 2020. A road map needs to be drawn up soon, as it all seems too vague currently: a realistic plan of action is needed with some sports ticked off as definitely going ahead within current qualifying standards.

The Australian Open organisers have been openly discussing their plans for a number of months ensuring players got their head around this 14-day quarantine and strict protocols. We need to see a similar plan for Tokyo, so that athletes can work towards that in the hope that things will improve around the world. Every effort should be made to allow as many athletes as possible to safely travel and compete at the Olympics, which for most is that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.