Careful, caution, achtung, cuidado, those of a nervous disposition please look away now and others please fasten your seatbelts and place yourselves in the brace position: I am about to praise the IOC for its wisdom and foresight.
In the middle of 2019, months before whatever took place between a bat and a pangolin to set off this interminable period of dreary house arrest/long-term state of fear and danger (delete as appropriate according to level of privilege), the IOC met in Lausanne to choose a host for the 2026 Winter Games, to inaugurate its new headquarters, to hold a two-hour award ceremony for its broadcast partners, and to update and ratify the Olympic charter. Among the less eye-catching decisions taken, announced to little fanfare in the fifth subsection the accompanying press release, was one that could end up rescuing the 2021 Olympics.
Looking back now, nearly two years on, some of the decisions made in Lausanne have proven – and these are words not frequently used to describe sporting administrators, least of all the IOC – astonishingly perspicacious. In the section of the charter that focuses on the Olympic Games themselves, there were two alterations, motivated – according to what we were told at the time – by a long-term ambition to add “flexibility” to the process of choosing hosts. It may just be a happy accident, but these now appear of such precognition that the most sensible explanation is that someone travelled back in time from the post-Covid world to warn of the troubles ahead.
For a start, clause four – “the non-celebration of the Olympic Games during the year in which they should be held entails the cancellation of the rights of the host city” – some version of which had been in the charter since it was first produced in English in 1930, was deleted in its entirety. Though the Games have not always been able to proceed as planned, most obviously in 1940 (also when Tokyo was supposed to host), when a war broke out they were first relocated to Helsinki and then abandoned altogether, no host city had ever attempted to move them to a different year; within nine months of the IOC meeting, Tokyo had sought a postponement.
Amid fevered speculation about an outright abandonment, last month Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, insisted that the Games would go ahead in Tokyo as re-planned and promised that “we are not speculating about whether the Games are taking place, we are working on how the Games are taking place”. Their task, if not completely insurmountable, is considerably more daunting than anything to be faced by those involved in the first Olympic sport climbing competition, due to start in five months, three weeks and one day.
The Olympic Village, where athletes and coaches of all nations – in 2016 there were 11,384 athletes representing 205 countries competing in 306 events – would live cheek by jowl in a series of apartment blocks – 21 buildings, 3,850 flats, 10,000 rooms, 18,000 beds – while eating in a single cavernous 24-hour catering facility, seems completely unsustainable in a world coping with Covid. Before the pandemic struck around 25,000 media accreditations were being issued, 600,000 tourists expected and 150,000 staff recruited. It is hard to see how any one of these groups can be brought together this year, let alone all of them.
The loss of spectators diminishes all sporting events, but at the Olympics the loss of the village, and as the 1958 Olympic charter innocently put it “the opportunity enabling all nationalities to be together, without discrimination of race, colour, religion, or politics” – a togetherness now traditionally celebrated through the medium of wild post-event partying and unrestrained McDonald’s consumption – would do most to change the athletes’ experience. Once competitors have to be scattered across the host city you might as well keep going, and take advantage of the other key decision of the 2019 IOC Commission.
Other than in 1956, when equestrian events were held in Stockholm because Australia’s savage quarantine regulations made the idea of transporting horses to join the two-legged athletes in Melbourne unappealing, and occasions when landlocked hosts have forced sailors and rowers to nearby waterways, Olympic events have always been held in one city. But in 2019 an extra sentence was added to the charter here: “Where deemed appropriate, the IOC may elect several cities, or other entities, such as regions, states or countries, as host of the Olympic Games.”
Nobody could have anticipated that the time to trigger that rule would so swiftly be upon us. If the barriers to holding these events together in Tokyo prove unsurmountable, either the 32nd Olympiad is cancelled altogether, denying a generation of athletes the chance to reach the pinnacle of their careers and denying the world its quadrennial fix of briefly considering synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics important, or a different path is found.
One of my favourite Olympic stories is the tale of Don Thompson, the race walker who managed to prepare for the heat of the 1960 Rome Olympics during winter in Cranford, Middlesex, by bringing every portable heater he could find into his bathroom, blocking doors and windows with towels, wearing his mum’s anorak over a full tracksuit and exercising as vigorously as he could in the space between the bath and the toilet. He won the gold medal. As tales of adversity go it is relatively trivial, but it demonstrates a truth about the Olympics and, even more clearly, the Paralympics: it is a festival for those who will always find a way, for people who cock a snook at the impossible. Never has that attitude been more necessary than now.
Make the Games global. Spread events and athletes around the world, in every time zone, creating an Olympic marathon of 24-hour-a-day elite sport. Let Tokyo host as many events as it can safely handle and redistribute the remainder among the world’s greatest venues, from Wembley to Wrigley Field, and among nations unlikely to host a full Olympics, from Morocco to Moldova, Mexico to Malaysia. If Japan cannot host the Games in their entirety they should instead be celebrated in true Covid fashion, by people forced to be physically distant yet managing to feel united – a unity not of place but of purpose. It might not be what we have come to expect our Olympics to look like, but as Pierre de Coubertin was so fond of saying, it is the taking part that counts.