Swimmer Takayuki Suzuki’s goal at the 2020 Tokyo Games is to add to the five Paralympic medals he has already won in his career.
He won’t get the chance to do it this summer, but he might next year — if he ever manages to resume training, that is.
“Track athletes can at least go outside for a run, but my bath isn’t really big enough for me to swim in,” Suzuki says from his family home in Chiba Prefecture, where he has been holed up since he left his regular training base in Newcastle, England, in late March because the facilities were shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I can’t train properly at the moment and I don’t know how long things are going to stay as they are,” Suzuki says. “The longer things stay like this, the more difficult it will be to get back to the level I was at.”
Suzuki, who won gold in the 50-meter SB3 breaststroke at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, is one of thousands of athletes around the world who have been left in limbo by the postponement of the Tokyo Games.
On March 24, one day after Canada and Australia had said they would not send their athletes to Tokyo this summer owing to fears over the new coronavirus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach agreed to push the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics back from their original dates of July 24 to Aug. 9 and Aug. 25 to Sept. 6, respectively. Organizers subsequently announced that both events would be held a year later than originally planned, give or take a day, and would retain their format and competition schedule.
War has forced the cancellation of the Olympic Games on three prior occasions but they have never been postponed, until now. The logistics of shifting such a gargantuan event back a year mean organizers are still scrambling to secure venues and deal with a multitude of other problems, and it has been estimated that postponement will add an extra ¥300 billion to the games’ price tag.
Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto has admitted that the continued spread of COVID-19 means there is no guarantee that the games will be able to go ahead next summer, even with the yearlong extension. Experts have warned that holding the games then would be “very unrealistic” if a vaccine has not been produced, and organizers have conceded there is “no Plan B” if the rescheduled dates prove to be unsuitable.
For the time being, at least, Tokyo’s Olympic dream is still alive. Many of the athletes hoping to compete there, however, have been left wondering if all their years of hard work and sacrifice will still count for anything when the Olympic cauldron is finally lit on July 23, 2021.
“I’ll be almost 34 when the Olympics come round, and that’s older than average for a fencer,” says Kenta Tokunan, who competed in the men’s sabre competition at the 2016 Rio Games, losing in the first round. “When you’re a veteran, one more year makes a difference. The young fencers are putting us under more and more pressure, and we don’t know who’s going to be at their peak one year later. I think it would have been better for me, personally, to compete while I was still performing at a high level.”
Tokunan is hoping to appear in the individual and team sabre events at the Tokyo Games, but he still doesn’t know if he’ll get there. Qualification for fencing was supposed to be based on the world rankings as they stood at the end of March, but competitions were suspended with one event left to play.
Tokunan now finds himself training alone in his one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo, unsure when he will be able to compete again or if, indeed, he will be able to clinch his Olympic place.
“Athletes are basically always training, from when they get up to when they go to bed,” Tokunan says. “When you’re at home all day, you do a training session that you would usually do in six hours in just one. When you suddenly do a lot less training, your life loses its rhythm. You can’t really lift weights or run at home. If you try to do the same things you usually do, you cut corners. I’m trying to come up with new ideas to keep my training going.”
The specific demands of preparing to compete at an Olympics vary greatly depending on the sport.
Yoshiaki Oiwa is an equestrian rider who has competed in eventing at three Summer Games and has been living and training in Europe, currently in Germany, for the past 20 years.
Mutual trust between horse and rider is essential in equestrian sports, and can only be built up through regular practice and competition. Getting a horse into peak physical condition for an event is also crucial, and Oiwa says “years” of planning have gone into his preparations for the Tokyo Games.
With no idea when equestrian competitions will resume, and currently unable to take his horses out for cross-country gallops because of restrictions on movement, he fears his efforts could all be for nothing.
“You have to be careful every day, making sure your horse stays in good shape and is free from injury,” Oiwa says. “If your horse gets injured, it’s all over. I was working toward the Olympics being held this summer, but now I’ve got another year and a half to go. The minimum requirement is for my horses to stay fit and free of injury during that time. I’m always nervous about my horses getting injured, especially when I’m working toward an Olympics. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Living and training in Germany, Oiwa says he began to doubt the Olympics would take place as scheduled when European countries started taking measures to contain the spread of the virus. Denmark’s border with Germany, near where Oiwa lives, closed to noncitizens on March 14.
That same day, an Olympic boxing qualification tournament took place in London. The tournament was suspended and postponed after three days, and at least seven people who took part in it later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Oiwa says he found it difficult to concentrate on his training with the virus spreading around the world, and he would have appreciated a clearer message from Olympic authorities.
“I would have liked them to say they were considering postponing the Olympics earlier,” Oiwa says. “They announced that they were thinking about it at a very late stage, and then the decision to postpone came quickly after that. Restrictions were starting to be put in place in Europe, but at the same time, organizers in Japan and the president of the IOC were still saying the event would go ahead as planned. There was a gap between that and how things really were here.”
Oiwa admits he is finding it hard to accept the situation and move on, but not all athletes have been hit so hard.
Table tennis player Mima Ito was one of Japan’s biggest hopes for an Olympic medal this summer. A bronze-medal winner in the women’s team competition as a 15-year-old in Rio in 2016, she has since reached No. 2 in the women’s world rankings, the highest position ever held by a Japanese player — male or female — since the current system began in 1991.
With 12 extra months to continue improving, Ito is even more confident about her prospects at the Tokyo Games.
“If the Olympics had been held this year, of course I think I would have had a chance,” she says. “But I think I will have much more of a chance next year.
“I really wanted to play in the Olympics this year, before I turn 20. But next year, I think I have a much better chance of winning a gold medal, and this is a good opportunity for me to keep improving before then. I think the extra year is a plus.”
As one of Japan’s most recognizable Olympians, and with a string of commercial endorsements to her name, Ito can afford to take postponement in her stride.
Most Olympic athletes in Japan are technically amateurs, employed by companies that often have no connection to sports. In practice, the athletes usually have no regular work responsibilities and are allowed to concentrate fully on their training, with the payoff being that their company can associate itself with their success. Athletes with a lower profile, on the other hand, often have to train in their own spare time and fund themselves.
Paralympic swimmer Suzuki is employed by sports apparel manufacturer Goldwin and studies international sports management at a graduate school in England. He receives a government-funded grant and describes himself as “on the more fortunate end of the scale of Paralympic athletes.”
Many other athletes, especially Paralympians, are not so lucky.
“I think a lot of people will find it tough,” Suzuki says. “Swimmers are chosen for the Paralympic team based on their times at the national trials. There are a lot of swimmers training really hard so that they can peak at those trials, and postponing for a year makes it really difficult for them. It’s difficult financially and it’s also difficult having to extend their training by a year. Not everyone gets the kind of financial backing that I do.”
It is not only athletes who have been affected by Olympic postponement. The scale of the event is so massive that it reaches into almost every aspect of a host city’s daily life, and has an impact on everyone from taxi drivers and hotel operators to municipal workers and the 80,000 unpaid volunteers who were set to play a part this summer.
Hanae Nojiri had been chosen, along with around 10,000 other runners, to participate in the Japanese leg of the Olympic torch relay, which was due to start in Fukushima Prefecture on March 26 and tour the country before ending up at Tokyo’s National Stadium for the opening ceremony 121 days later. Nojiri, who works as a newscaster with Fukushima Central Television, was supposed to run on the second day of the relay, in the town of Aizukawamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.
The decision to postpone the torch relay was taken two days before it was due to begin. The day after the postponement was announced, rather than preparing to run, Nojiri found herself reporting from the start line as workers cleared away a stage and a huge display of spring flowers that had been set up for the event.
Nojiri had begun to harbor doubts that the Olympics would actually take place as scheduled around two weeks earlier. When the decision to postpone was finally taken, she admits she had mixed feelings.
“I felt dejected, but at the same time a little relieved,” she says. “The day before the decision to postpone was taken, there was a suggestion that the flame could be carried around in a car, rather than having the runners carry it. That was when I felt most disappointed.
“The torch relay is supposed to be a symbol of peace and recovery, something to celebrate the start of the Olympics that everybody can enjoy,” she says. “It made me wonder what the point in driving the flame around in a car would be. Is that how you want to celebrate the start of the Olympics?”
In early March, it was reported that the World Health Organization had participated in a conference call with medical officers for the international sports federations that run the various Olympic sports. They discussed the possibility of holding the Tokyo Games as scheduled, but without spectators.
For Olympic fans such as Kyoko Ishikawa, the prospect was unthinkable. The 50-year-old, who runs her own IT company, has been to every Summer Games since Barcelona in 1992, and has become a familiar face for TV viewers in her haori and hakama traditional Japanese outfits. Until his death last year, she could often be seen with fellow Olympic superfan Naotoshi Yamada, the “Olympics Grandad” famous in Japan for his gold top hat.
Ishikawa and her family applied for 468 sets of tickets for Tokyo Olympic events in the two lottery sale phases that have been held so far. They only managed to draw one set between them, as well as five for the Paralympics, but Ishikawa is confident of buying more before the games begin next summer.
Ishikawa says she was never worried that the Tokyo Games would be canceled this year, but she was prepared for the possibility of fans being locked out.
“I would have been so disappointed,” she says. “For the past 30 years, I’ve been going to other countries to watch and cheer for the Olympic Games. Finally, the Olympics were coming to our town. If I couldn’t enjoy it, that would have been so sad.
“It would have been incomplete without fans,” she says. “The sumo tournament that was held in March with no fans was totally different. There was no excitement. That’s not sports — that’s just practice. Sports means athletes, rules, facilities and fans — all of those factors. It’s not only competing. Sport is entertainment.”
If all goes according to plan, Ishikawa will be able to enjoy the Tokyo Olympics with fans from all over the world next summer. Bach has said he hopes the event “can be a celebration of humankind after having overcome the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus.”
With the situation still so fluid, however, who can say what form the games will take? Or even if they will be able to go ahead at all?
If the Tokyo Games do take place next summer, the athletes hoping to compete in them believe they can inspire the world.
“As athletes, we can’t say if the Olympics will actually take place one year later or not,” says Japan men’s handball team captain Remi Anri Doi. “But if they are held and we can perform with excellence and pride on that stage, it will send a positive message to humanity that we can overcome the virus. If we can get over this and hold the Olympics, it will have a very significant meaning.”
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