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Archive for July 14, 2021

July 14, 2021 — The impossible Olympics

A week from today, competition in the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics will begin with preliminary-round games in soccer and softball. While these two sports will have the eyes of the world on them for a couple of days, it is on the following Friday when the Opening Ceremonies begin.

What will follow, instead of 16 days of glory, will be 18 days of uncertainty. This Olympics is taking place during a slackening of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic — not at its denouement. This is in stark contract with the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, which took place shortly after a worldwide H1N1 flu pandemic that killed millions in four separate waves. That fourth wave ebbed in April 1920 — just four months before the Olympics.

Here are some of the over-arching stories and issues which are going to be in the news in the next month:

1- COVID, COVID, COVID. You thought there were hair-trigger actions regarding schoolchildren or food-service workers and the Coronavirus pandemic? The regulations put in place for the Olympics are pretty stringent as is, but I’ll be interested to see what happens with the metrics. You have 100,000 athletes and other members of national delegations coming to Tokyo. Some will be athletes from countries which have had very little access to vaccines. Others might be VIPs who may have never gotten the vaccine in the first place. And I’ll also be interested to see if Michael Andrew, an American swimmer which has been resistant to getting the vaccine, will ultimately be allowed to compete.

2- Can anyone police athlete speech? The International Olympic Committee has had to walk back on Rule 50, a regulation which bars political protest, speech or political displays during the window of competition. While that is mostly in place, the IOC is allowing certain types of athlete speech as that speech is not targeted against people, not disruptive and not otherwise prohibited by the international governing body of sport, or by the national Olympic committee. Still, a year after the murder of George Floyd and worldwide protests regarding everything from Coronavirus to Israeli occupation of the West Bank to indigenous murders of children in Canada, there is a lot of potential for all manner of athlete protests.

3- New competitions: who will watch? There are a number of sports which are entering the Olympic stage — or, in the case of baseball and softball, re-entering. Thing is, a number of these sports are those are derivatives of other competitions. Karate joins judo, boxing, wrestling, and taekwondo as another combat sport. Another version of basketball, the 3-on-3 half-court variation, comes into the Olympics.

4- Attempts to appeal to the world’s young people. Millenials are being targeted with the addition of skateboarding, surfing, and sport-climbing adding to the Olympic program. A lot of these have professional competitions outside of the Olympic umbrella, and it will be interesting to see whether the top athletes in these competitions will be willing to spend time away from the traveling circuses of extreme sports competitions in the midst of a pandemic.

5- Are the American basketball teams ripe for a fall? It was nearly 30 years ago when a group of 11 future Naismith Hall-of-Famers would change basketball from an American sport into a truly world-level event. Since the addition of professionals to international basketball, the slow-building drama has surrounded the question as to when other nations would break the American grip on the sport.

Early indications show that the American men are in a transitional period. While the team has the likes of Draymond Green, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant, the pre-Olympic period has been rough. The United States lost its first two tune-up games, without three players who are currently playing in the NBA Finals. However, it must be noted that the struggles for the United States in men’s basketball are not limited to the five-a-side game; the U.S. 3-on-3 team didn’t even qualify.

On the women’s side, the team is star-studded, but it is an older group. Diana Taurasi is 39, and Sue Bird is 40. Friends, that is your likely U.S. starting backcourt. The U.S. frontcourt is missing the star player of the last Olympics, Elena Delle Donne. She has been out with back surgery. The U.S. team is also missing players like Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery who have turned their attention away from basketball to focus on social justice issues.

This leaves the 5-on-5 team vulnerable to other national teams, which could take advantage of their quickness and shooting. But I think the American 3-on-3 team, including Stef Dolson and Katie Lou Samuelsson, is a lock for gold.

6- White elephants, unoccupied. The Tokyo Olympic organizers and government have spent more than two billion dollars on the Games, including building all-new stadiums for sports like field hockey, volleyball, and swimming. Many such specialty buildings have, regrettably, been left to rot after Olympics past. For example, you haven’t seen field hockey at purpose-built stadia in the last several Olympics. Some venues have been left to rot, others were deconstructed and repurposed.

In Tokyo, however, all of these stadia will have one thing in common: they will be unoccupied. A national state of emergency will be keeping people out of the stands, and will cost the International Olympic Committee a billion dollars’ worth of lost ticket revenue.

I’ll also be interested to see which sports team will take over the timber-covered Olympic Stadium, which is not only a central location for the Games, but has been a logistical and political issue since 2012. Is this stadium going to host a J-League side, a new pro baseball team, a future NFL team, or might the site become Japan’s equivalent of Wembley Stadium, reserved only for the national team and/or cup-final level events?

7- Gender and mixed competition. There has been much made of transgender athletes over the last couple of years, with a number of track athletes running afoul of allowable testosterone levels in the runup to the games. I’ll be interested to see if the IOC will want to see a controversy surrounding a trans athlete in these Games.

Almost as if on cue, a number of mixed-gender events are debuting at these Games. Normally, the only mixed-gender competitions at an Olympics are found with the equestrian events (the horse is the real star here) and mixed doubles in tennis. But in Tokyo, you’re going to see mixed-gender relays in triathlon, swimming and track, mixed team events in judo, archery, and shooting, and the mixed doubles in table tennis.

8- What will all of this mean for next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing? Next February, the Olympics are going to come to Beijing, where it does not snow all that much. Instead, many of the events will be held in a cluster of towns in the neighboring Hebei province. Still, some of the big youth-oriented events, such as big-air snowboarding and freestyle skiing, are scheduled to be held in urban Beijing. That could be a problem if the temperature does not support a snowpack.

One major overarching issue for next year is whether and which a further variant of the Coronavirus will be entering the general population next winter. Will world health authorities be able to stay out in front after playing catch-up in the last year?