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As the world withdraws, athletes keep a flame alight for Tokyo

The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organising committee’s insistence this week that the Games will begin as planned on 24 July has been condemned from within and outside the Olympic movement.

British Olympian Matthew Pinsent, a rowing contemporary of Tomkins, said the refusal to call off the Games would put at risk athletes who were being asked to keep training when nearly all organised sport has been postponed. “Keep them safe. Call it off,’’ he tweeted.

Katerina Stefandi, a Greek pole vaulter preparing to defend her Olympic title in Tokyo, was incredulous: “The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family’s health and public health to train every day?”

Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian hockey player and member of the IOC athletes’ commission, said the IOC’s conviction about Tokyo was “insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity”.

Tomkins says this is not the view held by most Olympic athletes.

Tomkins is also a member of the IOC athletes’ commission and earlier this week, spent two hours on an international phone hook-up listening to the concerns of more than 200 athlete representatives from the Olympic sports and national Olympic committees.

He said that, aside from personal and public health imperatives, the most pressing issue raised by athletes during the phone call was the disruption to qualifying events and uncertainty over how Olympic teams will be selected.

Athletes don’t want the IOC to cancel the Games; they want to get there. Tomkins says that, until the Games become untenable, athletes would rather the IOC keep the flame alight.

James Tomkins (right) with Drew Ginn rows in Athens towards a fourth Olympic gold medal.

James Tomkins (right) with Drew Ginn rows in Athens towards a fourth Olympic gold medal.Credit:David Guttenfelder

“The Games are at the end of July,’’ he says. “Who knows what the situation will be then? Is it necessary to make a decision now? The theme coming out from all the athlete leaders around the world was to at least have something to aim for, that beacon.”

Having listened to IOC president Thomas Bach, IOC medical director Richard Budgett and other senior IOC staff, Tomkins is convinced that, if the Games do go ahead, it will only be in circumstances where they do not present an unreasonable risk to the health of the athletes or anyone involved.

“They are taking advice from all the global experts, across every aspect. They have got an incredible staff that is acting on that advice. It would be horrific for the Olympic movement if they were pushing on, irrespective.”

This is also the view of Sebastian Coe, one of Britain’s most influential Olympians. “Nobody is saying we will be going to the Games come what may,” he told the BBC. “But it isn’t a decision that has to be made at this moment.”

No peacetime event has had a greater impact on organised sport than the COVID-19 pandemic. An NBA season has been cancelled. The English Premier League is suspended. International track and field has been abandoned till May.

Community sport has ground to a halt, with local competitions either cancelled or postponed, school sport abandoned and many gyms and local swimming pools closing their doors to the public.

This does not mean all sport must stop.

Health Minister Greg Hunt, a former minister for sport, backed the AFL’s decision to start its season on Thursday night – albeit before a deserted MCG – and says the IOC is right to bide its time.

“We are using a six month guidance to Australians,’’ he tells The Age. “It could be less, it could be more. I deeply hope that it is less but we can’t make false promises. But each country and each circumstance will be different. So I think it is entirely reasonable of the IOC to take their time to consider.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has supported the AFL's decision to go ahead with its season.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has supported the AFL’s decision to go ahead with its season. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“The criteria that matter above all else are the health of the athletes and the health of any officials, volunteers and spectators. That is a decision that is understandably and rightly down the track. The world cannot say how quickly this will rise and fall.”

In the meantime, the challenge confronting athletes around the world is how to prepare and qualify for an Olympic Games which, as of today, are still scheduled to take pace.

In France and Spain, athletes are being told to stay in their homes. In the US, the college campuses where many athletes train are shut. In the UK, England Athletics has suspended all club training sessions until April.

In Australia, special provisions are being made to give elite athletes access to training facilities that are otherwise closed to the public.

At the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, the home pool of Olympic champion Mack Horton, high performance swimmers have been given special training hours and change rooms to limit the risk of contagion from the public. At the AIS in Canberra, public visits, camps and access have been cancelled and athlete training, eating and sleeping arrangements modified to provide a safer environment.

“We haven’t exactly closed the borders but we have tried to make it as suitable a training venue, as can be done, by eliminating unnecessary traffic on the site,’’ AIS director Peter Conde says. “We are limiting it to elite athletes and their support teams. None of this is foolproof but all the precautions we can reasonably take are being made to provide that best possible environment.”

So far, about 53 per cent of athletes have qualified for the 2020 Olympics. The remaining 47 per cent are awaiting decisions by their respective international sports federations on whether and when further qualifying events can be held. The alternative is that teams will be selected on the basis of past results or rankings achieved before the outbreak.

There remain serious doubts that the Olympic torch in Tokyo can safely be lit this year, much less on 24 July. The most recent advice from chief medical officers in Australia is that the virus will peak in June; about the time athletes here would be heading into training camps or boarding planes to Tokyo.

Japan has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infections in the developed world. If, come July, the virus is still raging elsewhere, why would Tokyo invite 11,000 athletes, 7500 officials and 30,000 volunteers into a densely populated metropolis?


The best hope for these Games is the unpredictability of the coronavirus and the speed at which the global crisis is developing. No one can say with any certainty what the world will look like in July. Who’s to say then, that it cannot come to Tokyo?

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