To let the Games begin, or not: Three Irish athletes give their thoughts on the Tokyo Olympics

Sara Treacy, Thomas Barr and Brendan Boyce on the question of holding the Games this summer

A ‘do not enter’ sign hangs on a fence outside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Bloomberg

A ‘do not enter’ sign hangs on a fence outside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Bloomberg

 

There are several countdown clocks situated at select locations around Tokyo which at this current time of writing read 186 days, 20 hours and 35 minutes until the start of the 2020 Olympics.

This being 2021, obviously, the Games postponed by exactly one year, last March, and rescheduled for this July 23rd through to August 8th, the Paralympics still set to begin just over two weeks later, for now at least following their original timetable of events across 33 sports under the same outdated branding.

Only with just over six months to go, the prospects of the 2020 Games actually going ahead appear no better now than they were six months ago: with large parts of the world currently experiencing their third wave of Covid-19, and Tokyo itself in a state of emergency, confirming 2,001 new cases last Friday: July 23rd seems a very long or short way off, depending on which way you view it.

Time is not the only pressing matter, any political or financial reasoning behind the staging of the Games now further complicated by an increasingly problematic moral and ethical dilemmas: should the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Tokyo organisers be even planning for the biggest sporting event in the world amid a still raging global pandemic, one which is set to bring around 11,000 athletes, from 206 countries, just as many again in coaching and management personnel, plus 6,000 accredited media, into the Japanese capital? And should they even begin considering opening the vast Olympic arenas to the public?

There’s also an ethical dilemma around the vaccine, should it become necessary for the Games to go ahead safely for all involved, given some countries haven’t yet begun administering it, Japan itself is not due to begin that process until mid-February. And should young, fit elite athletes be given any sort of priority when it comes to getting the vaccine, should that become a safe-Games requirement?

IOC president Thomas Bach has been adamant that postponing the Games again is not an option, and that if they don’t happen this summer, they won’t happen at all. Are the IOC not morally obliged to think again, especially given the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo were staged in October, and an extra three months might make all the difference?

The decision on whether or not to allow crowds into the Olympic venues will be made by the end of March: around 4.48 million tickets for the Olympics have already been sold (plus around 970,000 for the Paralympics), though only 810,000 of Japanese ticketholders requested a refund, when that process was opened last month.

Bach has also said the IOC will have “toolbox” of Covid-19 countermeasures come July, with testing at its core, and the vaccine, for now at least, wouldn’t be any requirement. There is still the outstanding matter of qualification (of the roughly 11,000 athletes, some 57 per cent had already secured their spots by last March, leaving another 43 per cent still to qualify).

The spending meanwhile continues to soar, last officially put at $15.4 billion, $2.8 billion more than the previously stated, and that’s long before the final bill for the one-year delay comes in.

For three Irish Olympians, in different situations and with some different perspective too, these dilemmas certainly aren’t going unnoticed. What is certain is that the IOC and the Tokyo organisers have a major task on their hands if the Games are to begin on July 23rd.

Ireland’s Sara Treacy with Switzerland’s Fabienne Schlumpf after the 3000m steeplechase final at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Ireland’s Sara Treacy with Switzerland’s Fabienne Schlumpf after the 3000m steeplechase final at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Sara Treacy was a finalist in the 3,000m steeplechase at the 2016 Rio Olympics, although isn’t targeting Tokyo (she’s not yet retired either), as she’s currently focused entirely on her medical career, a qualified doctor working at one of the biggest hospitals in Birmingham, where she’s been based for the last number of years.

Treacy hasn’t been home to see her family in Meath since March 9th, largely due to her work restrictions around Covid-19, and is eminently qualified to discuss the vaccine matter around the Olympics given she’s just got it herself, the first dose administered last week given she’s at the very front of the frontline.

“I got it more or less as soon as it was available to us,” says Treacy. “I have it because I work with Covid patients every day, but there’s certainly no rationale right now for pushing young, healthy people to the front of the queue.

“With regard to Tokyo I think we’re in a very different position to last March, when the Games were first postponed, simply because we know a lot more about the virus, and how to treat it, albeit not perfectly. We’ve also seen some precedent, with the smaller sporting events, in how they’ve gone ahead, around protocols which simply didn’t exist before. So there’s more of blueprint to work off, in terms of delivering a Games.

“So I think there is every chance the Games will go ahead this year, the difficulty is dealing with multiple countries, which might have different standards in how they’re approaching the vaccine, trying to standardise that in any way is going to be tricky.

“At this particular time it’s very difficult to prioritise athletes, ahead of the sort of people who haven’t had the opportunity to get the vaccine yet, but give it another three or four months. Even next June, athletes could still get a full vaccination schedule in, and at that stage, if countries have vaccinated the vast majority of their high-risk people by then, maybe then it is a reasonable expectation, there might be some private or public way of providing the vaccine for athletes. But at this point I don’t think anyone would suggest prioritising our elite athletes, no.

“For Tokyo, I’d certainly explore all the options. There are Olympic sports which fall into the relatively low-risk category, and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to go to Rio, and I really feel for the athletes who are coming to their peak now, and having so many of their opportunities taken away. But I don’t envy the Japanese organisers.”

Thomas Barr has still to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but is confident he will make it. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Thomas Barr has still to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but is confident he will make it. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Thomas Barr made the final of the 400m hurdles in Rio, finishing fourth and missing out on the bronze medal by 0.5 of a second. He hasn’t yet qualified for Tokyo, is set to turn 29 the day after the Games are currently set to begin, and is currently training in Limerick with every intention of being there come what may.

“The information we’re getting at the moment is that the Olympics will go ahead,” says Barr. “Now that could be under whatever circumstances allow or are necessary, whether that’s no crowds, flying in and out just before and after your event, that kind of thing.

“Initially I was very sceptical about the Games going ahead at all, but as time moves on, the different vaccines are being rolled out, and the world is getting a little more used to dealing with the virus, live with it, I’d be more confident that the Games will go ahead.

“Because I haven’t actually qualified yet, there’s still something of an unknown there anyway, but it’s not something I’m thinking too much about right now, because I’d be hopeful there will be some competitions before Tokyo, where I will be able to do a qualifying time, or if not get in through the ranking system.

“A lot of other athletes are in the same boat. Nobody really knows what way things will pan out come the summer, but there were a good for meetings on the circuit last summer, so I imagine they’ll go ahead this summer as well.

“With regards to the vaccine, if it came down to a case where athletes weren’t allowed compete unless they had the vaccine, then maybe then I’d like to see athletes getting some sort of priority. At the moment I don’t think that’s the case, it has to go the frontline workers, the sick and the elderly, but closer to the Games maybe, when most of that section of the population has been vaccinated, I would imagine some of the Olympic federations might want that. And I’m certainly happy to take the vaccine.

“In Rio I also felt I had the whole Olympic experience, certainly soaked it all up while I was out there, but I do feel bad for athletes who mightn’t get that experience. But if I have to fly straight into Tokyo for my event and then straight back out then that’s fine by me. It’s very hard to see how they’re going to allow a packed stadium, at this point.”

Race walker Brendan Boyce is continuing his Olympic Games preparations at a training camp in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Race walker Brendan Boyce is continuing his Olympic Games preparations at a training camp in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Brendan Boyce has already qualified for Tokyo in the 50km walk, for what will be his third Olympics, the 34-year-old finishing sixth in the event in the 2019 World Championships in Doha. His motivation for being there includes the fact the IOC have announced the cutting of the 50km walk, for 2024, to be replaced by a shorter mixed-gender event.

Boyce is also acting as if the Games will definitely happen, heading to a training camp in Potchefstroom in South Africa on New Year’s Eve, set to return on January 25th, after which he’ll need to go into quarantine for 14 days, his wife incidentally expecting the birth of twins at the end of February.

“There are eight of us training down here (including Kerry walker David Kenny), and we’re very much in our own bubble, don’t meet anyone else from outside,” says Boyce.

“It [the virus] is bad in pockets here, in the cities and down by the coast, but where we are at the minute it’s under control. We have access to the gym and the track, whereas at home, if I was training in Cork, all that is closed, so it just made sense to get away. We have more control here, only see the eight people every day, no one is contemplating going out for a coffee or anything like that.

“With regards to Tokyo, I think with three different vaccines being rolled out now, there are more positive signs, and hopefully that will be rolled out for the athletes too, eventually. We still have six months, a lot can be done in that time, and I think there will be appetite for sport to go ahead in the summer, so I would be fairly confident.

“I’m also in a good position, already qualified, so maybe there’s not as much panic for me compared to other athletes. I know the IOC are already working on a strategy to get the athletes safely in and out of Tokyo, and that was before the vaccine was being rolled out.

“So if federations are willing to work on that, I don’t think it’s the case that every athlete has to be vaccinated, and I certainly don’t think that should pushed through right now if it’s going to compromise the more vulnerable parts of society.

“Athletes tend to sacrifice a lot anyway, and if there’s a quarantine or isolation required before Tokyo, I think they’ll do whatever needs to be done to the Games over the line. So I don’t think getting the vaccine is the critical point that might make or break the Olympics.

“Because the race walks and marathons were moved to Sapporo (900km north of Tokyo, where it’s expected to be cooler), we hadn’t planned on going to the Olympic Village at all, would be more or less on our own anyway, with maybe a hundred athletes, so we’re probably in a stronger position now.

“Things like the Opening Ceremony are a big part of the experience, but I’m not going for that, I’m going there to get a result. And at this point I would take any sort of Olympics.”

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