Kohei Uchimura picks up speed as he makes one final rotation around the horizontal bar and lets go, sending his body flying upward. The three-time Olympic gold medalist clinches his arms in a tight X across his chest as he corkscrews through the air and lands with a slight hop backward for balance.
The roar of the crowd, which had been silently watching and hanging on every move and rotation around the bar, fills the arena as Uchimura gives the slightest of nods and then raises a fist.
It’s a scene that could’ve come straight out of the Tokyo Olympics — if the games hadn’t been postponed in March because of COVID-19 — but instead played out on a normal Sunday afternoon during a friendly gymnastics competition organizers hope is the precursor to the successful staging — during a pandemic — of the world’s biggest sporting event. That scene could still play out next summer at the rescheduled games, but Tokyo 2020 organizers have their work cut out for them.
Tuesday brought a small ray of hope for Olympic organizers, as drugmaker Pfizer Inc. announced its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was 90% effective per initial trial results.
“Of course, I heard the news about the vaccine, and I think that everyone in Japan felt a sense of relief,” Hidemasa Nakamura, the Tokyo 2020 games delivery officer, said during an online news conference Tuesday. “The same can be said for the organizing committee. But what we are doing right now is not thinking about a vaccine because we don’t have a vaccine yet, but rather focusing on testing, social distance and also the cooperation between the athletes and the other stakeholders.”
Organizers have said the games will be canceled if they can’t be held in 2021. In September, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told the media holding the Olympics wasn’t contingent on the availability of a vaccine. If organizers plan for the games under the current circumstances, they may have a lot of work ahead.
“I would regard an event like the Olympics as being one of the toughest possible things to keep safe during this epidemic,” Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist and an assistant professor at Washington State University, wrote in an email.
Organizers, however, began this week buoyed by the successful staging of an international gymnastics competition.
On Sunday, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and Japan Gymnastics Association (JGA) held a meet that was viewed by many as a small test run of Tokyo’s capability to host an international event under sports’ new normal.
The meet featured 30 gymnasts from Japan, China, Russia and the United States competing in a one-day event at Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which is scheduled to be the venue for badminton, handball and wheelchair rugby during the Tokyo Games. It was the first international competition in Japan featuring athletes arriving from overseas since the Olympic postponement.
“Currently, the situation with the COVID pandemic is unclear,” Nakamura said. “But amidst this pandemic, gymnastics managed to hold a safe competition. This sends a very strong message. It’s actually a practical example and I think this has great significance. But in order to hold a safe competition like this, we want to learn from their experiences and prepare for the games next year.
“The fact this competition was held in Tokyo is very helpful for us.”
The FIG and JGA implemented a number of safety protocols, including requiring athletes arriving from abroad to take PCR tests before coming to Japan and administering daily testing to all athletes. When they arrived in Japan, the gymnasts were confined to their own floors at the hotel and only able to travel to and from the venues for competition and practice.
“There were PCR tests day after day and moreover, you’re having something stuck up your nose every morning,” Uchimura said the day before the event. “But after all, this is the first international event to be held in Japan and it has to be a success for the sake of the Olympics, so I think it’s right to overdo it.”
There were also temperature checks at the venue and air purifiers, which FIG President Morinari Watanabe admitted were mostly there for peace of mind, next to the team benches. The venue also featured machines that gave temperature readings, dispensed hand sanitizer and sprayed out sterilizing mist meant to cover the body.
Essentially, the FIG created a bubble similar to what the NBA and NHL utilized to complete their seasons.
“For me, I understood all the procedures,” said American gymnast Yul Moldauer. “I understand why we had to go take a test every morning, I understood why we had to make sure we hand sanitize everywhere we go.
“COVID is a serious thing and if you don’t follow procedures, you’re risking not just yourself, but everyone else’s safety. To continue competitions, to continue the Olympic year, we have to be safe. We have to be more safe than you ever expect.”
A bubble is one possible option for the Tokyo Games, though it would have to be on a much larger scale. In 2016, 11,237 athletes took part in the Rio Olympics and 4,328 participated in that year’s Paralympics.
The FIG and JGA also had a dry run on how to handle a case of infection when Uchimura tested positive in late October. The result was deemed to be a false positive after further testing. After the initial result, gymnastics at the National Training Center was shut down and athletes and staff were tested, while Japan’s participation in the meet was uncertain.
“I was speaking with Mr. Watanabe and we thought we were lucky that it was false positive,” Uchimura said in an online news conference Saturday. “Because what happened to me was a good experience before the Tokyo Games.”
Assuming the games are held, another issue is whether to allow fans and, if so, in what numbers. Organizers have previously said they hope to have fans in the stands at the Olympics. Fans have been allowed at sporting events in limited numbers in Japan since July, and 2,094 attended Sunday’s gymnastics meet.
“I will admit to being skeptical,” Lofgren of Washington State University wrote. “I think it’s an understandable goal — the Olympics is something people spend their whole life working toward, and to have it canceled is potentially devastating. Not to mention the investment Tokyo has put into the Olympics. But Olympic spectators come from all over the world, and potentially countries where there are currently uncontrolled outbreaks (like, regrettably, the United States).
“The other important thing to keep in mind is that spectators aren’t just at events — they are at hotels, and restaurants, and transit points. They may go to parties or other celebrations. It’s possible that with extremely tight restrictions on where spectators come from, how many there are, and what other sorts of activities are available, etc. one could attempt it, but at this point it seems like a high risk not only to the participants, but also a risk of reigniting the outbreak in the host country.
“Japan has handled their outbreak relatively well, but we’re currently seeing the beginning of a third wave there, and it’s hard to tell what the future holds.”
The government attempted to gather information on large gatherings by holding a three-day trial with relaxed attendance limits during a series between NPB’s Yokohama DeNA BayStars and Hanshin Tigers from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at Yokohama Stadium, an outdoor venue which seats over 34,000 and is scheduled to host Olympic baseball and softball.
The series drew crowds of 16,594, 24,537 and 27,850. High-tech cameras were installed in the stadium to study the flow of people and see how many were wearing masks among other measurements intended to help organizers create measures against the spread of the virus.
In Japan, fans have been asked to find ways to cheer without shouting or singing. That proved to be difficult to enforce at times on the final day of the Yokohama trial. Hanshin fans in left field sang as their team rallied for four runs in the top of the seventh, and BayStars fans leapt to their feet and cheered after their team tied the score in the bottom half of the inning. While the fans mostly followed the new rules, there was little stadium staff could do when emotions ran high.
“As the number of fans rise, the risk goes up pretty seriously,” Lofgren said. “The reasons for this are two-fold. The first is the obvious one — the more people you have, the harder it is to spread people out effectively, which means transmission from people while they’re watching the event increases. But it also puts more strain on everything else — it’s hard to distance people at bathrooms, at food vendors, at transport to and from a venue, etc. and the more crowded it is, the harder it is.
“The second is simply that more spectators increases the chance of having one or more people at the event who have COVID-19 and are capable of passing it on.”
A test similar to the Yokohama Stadium experiment was held indoors during games at Tokyo Dome, and Tokyo 2020 organizers have received information about the tests and a briefing about the measures at the gymnastics competition.
“Each experience is going to teach us a lot and drawing on this knowledge is the quickest way to stage safe and secure games next year,” Nakamura said Tuesday.
“What I thought about today was the importance of communication. How we communicate to the athletes what kind of safe and secure games we’re going to stage is going to be important. We also need to communicate with the accommodation companies and the transport companies about the efforts we are undertaking. We all have to work together.”
Almost eight months after the announcement that postponed the Olympics, there isn’t a definitive answer as to whether or not the show will go on. Though the weekend’s gymnastics event has given the Tokyo 2020 team and potential Olympians more confidence.
“They’ve shown they can host a competition with all the things going around and I think it’ll be a great Olympics next year,” American gymnast Shilese Jones said.
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