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As the Tokyo Olympics head into their second week, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe is insistent on making sure Japan gets its due praise as competitions under his purview begin in earnest behind closed doors at the new National Stadium.

Speaking exclusively to The Japan Times before Saturday’s evening session, the two-time Olympic gold medalist said he believed the world would remember the host nation positively for the efforts it took to host the Games amid the coronavirus pandemic — even as the Japanese public remains deeply divided over whether they should have been held in the first place.

“I think people will look back on these Games (and) they will be rightly, incredibly grateful to the people of Japan for honoring their hosting commitment,” Coe said. “I know the world is extremely grateful to the people of Japan and the fortitude and resilience they’ve shown through this.”

Echoing International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach in describing the Tokyo Olympics as a “beacon of hope,” Coe said that expectations of a “post-pandemic Games” set after the event’s March 2020 postponement were based on scientific knowledge available at the time, and that sporting officials’ understanding of infection prevention methods has only improved since.

“I don’t think there’s another director in any other sport that has absorbed and understood as much about the coronavirus as (WA Director of Health and Sciences) Dr. Stephane Bermon, and I know he has been very helpful in working on the medical elements with the organizing team here,” Coe said.

“He was always clear with us from the beginning that this is not an exact science,” he added. “At this moment, we know that wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing are probably the only vehicles that we have until (vaccinations are completed).”

Hours after Tokyo announced a record 4,058 new COVID-19 cases and Japan’s single-day tally crossed 12,000 on Saturday, Coe defended the safety protocols governing athletes and their support staff in the Olympic Village, calling them “an exemplar of good practice” that would demonstrate how large-scale sporting events could be run during global health crises.

World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe presents men's 10,000-meter Olympic gold medalist Selemon Barega of Ethiopia with a bouquet flowers at Tokyo's National Stadium on Saturday. | REUTERS
World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe presents men’s 10,000-meter Olympic gold medalist Selemon Barega of Ethiopia with a bouquet flowers at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Saturday. | REUTERS

Among 20 new Tokyo 2020-related infections announced by Olympic organizers on Saturday was U.S. pole vaulter Sam Kendrick, raising the total number of infected athletes to 26 out of 256 Games-related cases since July 1. As of Saturday, just 103 cases have been confirmed among 40,558 accredited personnel who have arrived from overseas to take part in the Olympics.

“The twin challenges of keeping the athletes safe and secure, but also never forgetting that there are also communities that are hosting us, I think in large part have been met,” Coe said.

“There is a slight misconception that the 10,500 competitors and another 7,000 support staff and delegates have all descended on the city of Tokyo; they haven’t,” he noted. “They’ve descended on a well-managed village with quarantine facilities that are the equal of any set of protocols anywhere in the world at the moment.”

Admitting that Olympic participants had wanted to be in Tokyo under “very different circumstances,” Coe offered support for the decision by Japan’s government and other stakeholders to hold the event without fans after the fast-spreading delta variant of the virus began to proliferate in early July.

“You have to accept, willingly, the judgments that are made on the ground,” he said. “You hope those judgments are based on science and not politics, which is always a risk in any community, and there comes a point beyond which ministers make decisions and advisers advise, and those roles should never be confused.

“Ultimately somebody has to make a considered judgment … that falls to the political leadership of the country, informed by what you hope is sensible and balanced scientific (guidance).”

‘No Games need an asterisk’

The array of disruptions caused by the pandemic, including the interruption of qualifying events, the restrictive circumstances faced by athletes in the so-called Olympic bubble and struggles to maintain anti-doping protocols in the wake of global travel restrictions, has led some critics to question whether the Tokyo Games are capable of being judged alongside other Olympics in the modern era.

But Coe, whose golds in the 1,500-meter distance came at the 1980 and 1984 Games in Moscow and Los Angeles, cited the Cold War-related boycotts of those events in claiming that athletes’ accomplishments at Tokyo 2020 would stand the test of time.

“No Games need an asterisk. I ran in Moscow. I ran in Los Angeles. There is no asterisk saying that Romania wasn’t there, or that the United States wasn’t there,” he said.

“There’s been a longer period of qualification than ever before. We extended … the qualification period so we didn’t have countries that were in lockdown, and athletes not able to compete losing out on those opportunities, and that has balanced out.

World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe has sought to assuage fears that Tokyo 2020’s closed-door presentation would not affect its standing in the sports world, leaving the door open for the city to host future international events, including at the National Stadium in the capital. | AFP-JIJI
World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe has sought to assuage fears that Tokyo 2020’s closed-door presentation would not affect its standing in the sports world, leaving the door open for the city to host future international events, including at the National Stadium in the capital. | AFP-JIJI

Referring to the independent Athletics Integrity Unit tasked with detecting drug cheats in the sport, Coe added: “I think the work they’ve done under incredibly different circumstances is way ahead of any sport at these Games.”

Describing marathons and road races as “bordering on a religious experience for some” in Japan, he expressed disappointment with the decision made by the IOC — whose board he is also a member of — to shift Tokyo 2020’s marathon and race walk events to northern Sapporo in light of concerns over the host city’s notorious summer heat, but said Tokyo organizers were above board in setting expectations for the Games’ weather.

“I don’t think this was any misrepresentation, every bid has to be very clear,” Coe said. “It is really clear for whatever reason that we are living in a world that is getting hotter at the moment. Those temperatures in cities are warming up.

“To go to Sapporo was not the decision that World Athletics took … It was an IOC decision, but as a group partner we’ve made this work as well as we could have done. I think if you speak to our athletes, our race walkers and marathon runners, they would have preferred to be in the heart of the Games in Tokyo.”

The 64-year-old, who oversaw London’s successful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, said that Tokyo’s National Stadium — rebuilt at a cost of $2 billion — would play a key role in future World Athletics events, referring to the Japan Sports Council’s intent to keep the venue’s running track rather than fill the area with more seats after the Games as had initially been proposed.

“I’m very grateful that the warmup track is going to be maintained and that the track around the stadium will be maintained,” Coe said. “When you have a warmup track, and you have a stadium that looks like this, (the post-Olympics) legacy looks very promising.

He also sought to assuage fears that Tokyo 2020’s closed-door presentation would not affect its standing in the sports world, leaving the door open for the city to host future international events.

“I don’t think we should conclude that because we haven’t had fans here, that because we haven’t had overseas visitors here, that there is any lack of ambition to bring events back to Japan,” Coe said. “The images that have also been portrayed around the Games have not done a disservice at all to the potential for people wanting to come to Tokyo. I think Tokyo will come out of these Games with an enhanced reputation.”

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