6 June 2024

Britain’s Olympic chief has told AFP the staging of the Tokyo Games in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has proved the doubters wrong while a former IOC executive claims it was a “miracle”.

The first Olympics ever to be postponed took place a year late and in stadiums where spectators were largely banned by the Japanese authorities.

Yet the competitors produced outstanding performances, seemingly unaffected by the lack of atmosphere, and the highly sceptical Japanese public slowly warmed to the Games happening in their city — even if they were not able to watch in person.

Hugh Robertson, chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), said the many who questioned whether they should go ahead had been put in their place.

“The doubters have been proved wrong. The world has gone through an exceptionally difficult 18 months but athletes from across the globe came together and put on a memorable show,” he said.

“The Games have been held in the most challenging circumstances imaginable and the organisers have excelled.”

Michael Payne, the former head of marketing at the IOC, said he believed these unusual Games had provided “optimism and hope for the future”.

Payne, who in nearly two decades at the IOC was credited with transforming its finances through sponsorship, said he believed the IOC “held its nerve”.

Polls before the Games consistently showed the Japanese people were against hosting them as Covid-19 cases rose to record levels and a state of emergency was declared in Tokyo.

“It was an absolute miracle they happened,” said Payne. “A miracle the Japanese pulled it off, a miracle the IOC got all the athletes here and stage a Games in the midst of a pandemic giving optimism and hope for the future.”

– Unique circumstances –

Veteran IOC member Gunilla Lindberg, secretary-general of ANOC (Association of National Olympic Committees) and responsible for supporting the 206 national Olympic bodies, admitted that even two weeks before the Games she was unsure whether they would go ahead.

While it was not the first time an Olympics have been affected by health issues — organisers at Rio 2016 grappled with the Zika virus, for example — Lindberg said this “was worse than anything” other Games had had to face.

“They were difficult preparations and nobody knew I would say even two weeks before the Games if it would happen,”  the Swede, who has worked on 26 Summer and Winter Games, told AFP.

“It exceeded all of our expectations because it was a very tough Spring preparing the teams.

“That was because we could not get answers. Why was that not possible? Because nobody knew anything.

“Neither the IOC nor the Japanese had the answers. We thought it would be a real mess.”

– ‘Still magical’ –

Payne says it is debatable whether this is the biggest crisis the IOC has faced in its long history, citing the financial problems the movement experienced in the 1980s, but said: “You look today, and these Games, in spite of the pandemic, have been incredibly successful.

“You’ve seen incredible sport, you’ve seen new sports (sport climbing, skateboarding to name two) come in to a programme that have been a big hit and the athlete performances have been better than you could have hoped for.”

Payne regrets there were no spectators — “the Japanese people were the biggest losers” — because of what he maintained were largely political reasons.

But both Lindberg and Payne believe the Games have proved popular with the Japanese.

“The moment they started winning gold medals, the TV ratings went off the charts,” Payne said. “The Japanese embraced the Games in their living rooms.

“It’s a pity they couldn’t embrace it in the stadiums, but you talk to the volunteers and staff and this was still magical, this was still great.”

And Lindberg said the Games’ success against the odds had been “good for the Olympic heart.”