Tokyo 2021: the Games and the impact of COVID-19

Tokyo 2021: the Games and the impact of COVID-19

By Louise Schwartzkoff, University of Sydney

Faster, higher, stranger.

Tokyo 2021 will be unusual in many ways. Sydney researchers discuss the COVID-19 Games, and why the Olympics (mostly) go on, even in the toughest of circumstances.

The show that (almost always) goes on

“What’s amazing is how often the Games go on, in the face of trying circumstances,” says Emeritus Professor Richard Waterhouse, an expert on the history of sport and the Olympic Games.

“While the Olympics were not held in 1916, 1940 or 1944 because of war, they were held in Antwerp in 1920 after the Spanish flu pandemic, although many potential competitors had died and spectator numbers were quite low because of fears about another outbreak.

“In 1968 in Mexico, government forces opened fire on a crowd of students at a protest before the Olympics, killing many. The Games went ahead regardless.

“The Munich Games in 1972 continued after a terrorist group killed two members of the Israeli team and took hostage another nine, who later were also killed in the assault designed to free them.

“It’s less amazing that the Tokyo Games are going ahead than that they were postponed.”

Should the 2021 Games go ahead?

From an ethics perspective, these Games probably should not go ahead while the world is grappling with COVID-19, says Dr Diego Silva, an expert in public health ethics and infectious diseases ethics from the Sydney School of Public Health.

“But it’s a complex question,” Dr Silva says. “We can’t underestimate the efforts of the Olympians who have worked to get there and what it means to them. As a society, we value excellence in these endeavours and that can’t be ignored, but these are unprecedented times and perhaps sport should take a back seat.”

Dr Steve Georgakis, an expert in sport history and the sociology of sport from the School of Education and Social Work, believes commercial corncerns are driving the Tokyo Games.

“The Games were devised to promote peace and unity around the world, but it seems these Games are only going ahead because of commercial interests,” he says. “They’re going to divide the world, not unite it.

The 2032 Olympics are expected to take place in Brisbane and Dr Georgakis says we should be asking why. “Is it because the International Olympic Committee sees Australia as a safe pair of hands at a time when the Olympic brand will need to be rebuilt?”

The IOC’s duty to protect athletes’ health

Dr Giuseppe Carabetta, an expert in sports law with the University of Sydney Business School, says the IOC owes a legal duty of care to protect athletes’ health in the context of COVID-19. “It must ensure as many participants as possible are vaccinated. The IOC’s estimate is that 80 percent will be vaccinated,” he says.

“The IOC must also make sure its safety guidelines are best practice (earlier draft versions were criticised as not being supported by sufficient scientific evidence). They must not only protect the athletes but also the many trainers, officials, and transport and hotel workers involved.

“Finally, the IOC must ensure the safety guidelines it has put in place are reasonably complied with throughout the Games.

“I think the IOC is looking to take all practical measures to ensure the safety of athletes and attendees, and with any luck the Games will be a huge success. But these steps will be crucial in avoiding an uncontrolled outbreak, and a potential legal and PR disaster.”

The hottest Games in history

The Tokyo Games are widely forecast to be the hottest on record. Professor Ollie Jay, an expert in heat, health and performance from the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory at the Sydney School of Health Sciences, says the relatively high temperatures and humidity common during July and August in Japan will pose an unprecedented health risk to athletes competing outdoors.

“If not properly managed, heat-related illnesses can quickly develop, even in elite athletes,” he says. “The severest form of heat illness – heat stroke – can be deadly.”

Professor Jay says that while most athletes will undertake specialised conditioning to the heat prior to the Games, a substantial risk will remain.

“The implementation of large-scale heat-stress management systems that ensure high-risk events, such as the marathon, take place during the coolest times of the day, will be critical,” he says. “It’s important that the most effective cooling strategies are available at the right time.”

Inspiring armchair fans to get active

Associate Professor Melody Ding is an expert in physical activity from the Sydney School of Public Health. “The irony of the Olympics is that for most people they’re really about sitting on the couch watching sport on TV,” she says.

“We should consider the Olympics an opportunity to remind the public of the importance of physical activity. This isn’t something we should be thinking about once every four years. It should be a conversation we’re having all the time.

“Instead of thinking only in terms of elite sports, we should see the Olympics as an opportunity to create a legacy of mass sports participation and promote physical activity at a population level. That’s especially important for those of us who are living sedentary lives in lockdown.”

Mindfulness: the secret weapon for Tokyo 2021

“Ordinarily, an athlete would train to be at their physical and mental best to perform in a context that is relatively predictable,” says Dr Elizabeth King, an expert in mindfulness, resilience and leadership in extreme environments from the School of Psychology. “At these Olympics, they won’t have as much control over their situation. They will be aiming for peak performance in a situation of uncertainty.”

Dr King says it’s all about preparation until the moment of performance. “At that moment, it becomes about mindfulness,” she says. “The key will be to focus on the task at hand, with an awareness of how the unusual context, and an athlete’s mental response to it, might get in their way, and what they can do to address that.”