For some athletes, it was the last chance to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. They are too old, too exhausted or too financially strained to wait another year.
One of them is Tetsuya Sotomura, 35. When I met him on a sweltering afternoon earlier this week, he was still tough in a converted factory building in a northern Tokyo suburb, flying high in the air, spinning and tumbling down on a massive trampoline.
In 2008, Tetsuya placed 4th at the Beijing Olympics, narrowly missing a bronze medal. Since then he has battled an injury that took him out of London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. Tokyo had to be his last hurray, the Olympics in his hometown to end his trampoline career on a high. But another year is too much.
“In 2008, if the Beijing Games had been postponed for a year, I would have thought it was fine, it’s another year to train, another year to grow,” he told me. “But now I’m 35. A year seems very long to me. So I decided that retirement was the only option. “
But there is another reason why Tetsuya quits the trampoline. He believes that Tokyo 2021 may never happen.
“It’s so uncertain. No one knows the probability. If what awaits us next year is cancellation, I would have wasted another year for nothing. So that’s another reason to go now. ”
Enthusiasm for the games has plummeted in Japan since Covid-19 arrived here in January. The Japanese government has closed Japan’s borders to most foreigners to protect the country from imported cases, and many Japanese are in no rush to see them reopen to athletes or spectators.
TV reporters traveled to towns to greet various foreign teams and ask residents how they felt. Residents of a city north of Tokyo that was due to host the Brazilian squad clearly struggled to maintain any semblance of enthusiasm. An opinion poll by the Kyodo news agency found that only 23% of people in Japan now support the organization of the games if Covid infections are still prevalent next year.
The latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) are not very encouraging. More than 15 million infections worldwide, and that number is increasing by about one million every four to five days.
From the United States to Brazil, from India to South Africa, law enforcement efforts are failing and infections are on the rise. Sure, a year seems like a long time, but many health experts say it is now highly unlikely that the pandemic will be contained by next summer.
At Kobe University Hospital in western Japan, Professor Kentaro Iwata says the only hope for the Olympics is a vaccine.
“If a vaccine is available it could be a game changer,” he says. “The phase 1 and 2 trials are showing promising results. I haven’t given up hope. But in general, vaccines don’t eradicate a virus, they reduce the incidence by about half. So I don’t think Covid-19 can be eradicated. Instead (even with a vaccine) it will continue until 2021. ”
Professor Iwata is particularly concerned about what is happening in the United States, the country that pays more than any other for the Olympics.
“The United States will suffer from Covid for many months to come,” he says. “Can American athletes come here? Can we have the Olympics without the Americans? Most likely not. The priority must be the safety of the athletes and the Japanese. American TV companies may not like it, but the Olympics sports competition or TV show? ”
There’s a seemingly straightforward fix: Postpone the Tokyo games for another year until 2022. It’s much more likely that the pandemic will have run its course by then. But this was ruled out by the Japanese government. From his home in Montreal, the longest-serving member of the International Olympic Committee, Dick Pound, told me that we are now in 2021 or bankrupt.
“What we do know is that 2021 is our last chance,” he says. “It’s not something we can put off until 2022 or 2023. I don’t think it’s fair to expect Japan to keep the balls up any longer. As long as it is safe for the athletes to come, every effort will be made. Having said that, if public health authorities in Japan and around the world conclude that this is not safe enough, there is probably no alternative but to say, “Well the pandemic is the new war.” “. ”
The only time an Olympics has been canceled completely before is because of World War II, and those games were – you guessed it – in 1940 in Tokyo.
So how about a final idea: very simplified games, with foreign athletes quarantined before their arrival but foreign spectators kept out?
According to Dick Pound, he is a non-runner.
“In the North American expression – you have the fish or you cut the bait,” he says. “Japan should decide, does it want the Games to continue or are the risks too great? In that case, Japan would likely propose, and the IOC would accept, the cancellation. ”
On Thursday evening, inside the Olympic stadium, they held a clock reset ceremony, a year before the opening ceremony. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insists the Games must continue but Covid-19 is almost certainly not listening.