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What is the point of a half-baked Olympics?

Bach should know by now that a virulent pathogen, one that respects neither borders nor calendars and that has killed almost 2.1 million people in 10 months, is not about to heed his abstract ideals.

Not that designing a vast end-of-COVID jamboree is an ignoble idea, merely unrealistic. It should be evident by now that the virus has no intention of ending with a big bang, one that might enable a sporting Glastonbury with zero restrictions. Significant obstacles will still exist come July, making an event on the scale of the Tokyo Games, requiring the convergence of over 200 nations on the world’s densest megalopolis, almost unthinkably difficult.

This week’s scenes in Melbourne will give the IOC pause for thought. Officials at the Australian Open thought they had created a fully bio-secure envelope when they arranged for 12 charter flights to transport a 1270-strong tennis entourage to their city, ready for a fortnight’s quarantine. All it took was one asymptomatic case, and an entire planeload was forced into 14 days’ hard lock-up, while their rivals retained daily dispensations to train outside.

Forget any suggestion of mental hardship, as so memorably parodied by the lament of Bernard Tomic’s girlfriend that she had to wash her own hair. The real problem is the lack of any equality of opportunity.

While Rafael Nadal can go through practice drills to his heart’s content for five hours a day, Pablo Cuevas is reduced to thwacking single-handed backhands against his hotel-room wall. If they are drawn together during the first week of matches, is this truly a fair fight?

The singles tournaments in Australia involve 256 athletes. For the Tokyo Olympics, there are due to be more than 14,000. Nobody disputes that major compensations must be made for international sport to happen amid this crisis, but the Games should be the one stage resistant to any shortcuts.


If we do not see the best at their best, then the Olympics’ founding principles would cease to apply. It is a possibility that should keep the suits in Lausanne awake at night. And yet it does not deprive them of half as much sleep as the prospect of all those lost broadcast and sponsorship contracts, or a potential hit to the Japanese economy of over £10 billion. With this in mind, it remains probable that a much-streamlined Olympics will be preserved.

It is a source of much sadness, though, to imagine sport’s grandest feast reduced to a gutted shell. Tokyo was poised to deliver a wonderful Games, with all the fiendish logistics managed with polish and vibrancy.

All the mitigation strategies now advanced, such as banning fans from singing or chanting for fear of spreading virus droplets, are anathema to everything these Olympics were supposed to signify.

It would be a labyrinthine challenge, but by far the most sensible option would be to defer Tokyo to 2022 and Paris to 2025. For this is one sporting glory that deserves to be performed to its fullest expression, or not at all.

The Telegraph, London

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