Athletes will soar, records will fall and inspiring stories will live on for decades.
And of all the tales that will emerge from the Tokyo Olympics, the most enduring might be that of the world’s premier multi-sports event at a turning point.
Professor Angela Schneider, director of Western’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, said this is a watershed moment for the Games: for athletes and for the organization itself.
“It’s going to be a truncated Olympics, no doubt about it,” said Schneider, a silver medalist in rowing at the 2012 Games in London, England. The pandemic has stripped away much of the non-sports events the world has come to expect: the crowds, the shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie of opening and closing ceremonies, the athletes’ village, the energy of the host city. All of that buzz is part of what makes the Olympics a spectacle.
Story behind the athletes
So what is left when there are few fans in the stands, and even less fanfare?
That’s when the athletes’ stories and performances can shine, Schneider said. “The athletes won’t have this major Olympic ‘experience,’ which is unfortunate and I really feel for them losing that opportunity. But they will also be 100-per-cent focused on their performance because there will be no distractions.”
And the media, in the absence of highlighting the Games’ sidebar stories as in past years, can focus on the teams’ athletic accomplishments and what it took for them to get to Tokyo. “It’s going to be about athletes’ performances now. Athletes will be the centre of the show.”
And their stories are more than worth telling.
With minimal pandemic-time training facilities – and an even greater challenge for Paralympians in securing accessible training centres or adapting home gyms to simulate training centres – it’s remarkable that many athletes set records in the few international and qualifying events that did take place.
And even once they qualified, Tokyo’s redoubled efforts to keep COVID-19 in check put the event itself in jeopardy almost until the last minute.
“The creativity, the resiliency, the tenacity they have shown – we almost have an obligation to listen to their stories.”
At the same time, Schneider said, the Games itself will need to redefine its expectations and support for host cities. Without ticket sales or tourists to boost revenue, the Tokyo Olympics and Japan itself stand to lose billions.
The International Olympics Committee’s next step – in being a cushion for host cities, and in making it more affordable to become a host city in the first place – will be crucial to the future of the event, she said.
Tokyo isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, to be buffeted by international circumstances out of its control, she said. “The IOC has to do a major reset on all of this, given the prevalence of pandemics. If they don’t change, it could be their demise because if nobody bids on it, then they’re done.”
Schneider is hopeful, both for athletes and the transformative power of the Games.
“I still believe 100 per cent in the Olympics. They changed my life, so I can’t help but be an optimist.”