Pandolympics

Hopes ahead of the Tokyo opening ceremony

Let’s be clear at the outset. The Tokyo Games clearly shouldn’t be taking place. Whatever their outcome in terms of Covid prevalence in Japan, the decision to go ahead won’t be justified. The Japanese population would rather the Olympic circus wasn’t coming to their town, and its opinion deserved to prevail. Locals’ concerns are on a different scale to the usual pre-Games gripes about budgets, ticket prices and traffic problems. The IOC has bulldozed them flat and I hope its tin-eared intransigence is never forgotten or forgiven.

The Games then are happening right now, with the sound and fury of their opening ceremony in a near-empty echo chamber of the National Stadium almost upon us.

And I confess I’m guilty of being pleased.

Pleased for the athletes and coaches I know from my time at UK Athletics, for 1500m runner Jake Wightman who played ten pin bowls with my kids as a teenage tourist at Beijing 2008, for the people in the GB system across all sports who I’ve met down the years, and most importantly for our GB wheelchair rugby squad who are in their training bubble ahead of next month’s Paralympics.

The decision to press ahead with Tokyo 2020 in 2021 may be brutally reckless, but now it’s been made someone is going to win each sanitised medal that’s available for an athlete to hang around their own neck. As a sports leader I’m no fan of medal targets (of which more later) but I love medals, and if they are there to be won then let’s go after them. The occasional tennis player or golfer has turned their back on Tokyo - just as they did in Rio - but the Games are rarely remembered for those who weren’t there.

The media thinks it knows what the big stories of the next fortnight will be. Those journalists now in Tokyo are living a lockdown existence akin to the athletes and so this suffuses all their reporting. I hope they ‘out’ some of the administrators and hangers-on who have crossed the globe under the pretext of the importance of networking with people who themselves really shouldn’t be there either. These people know who they are, and it won’t be a good look to be seen in the stands. The Japanese Emperor’s wife has made the right call in staying away from the opening ceremony.

Covid reportage aside, the expected narrative is as follows: New Zealand’s transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will be the focus of a virtual frenzy equivalent to the physical storm that engulfed Caster Semenya on her breakthrough at the 2009 World Athletics Championships, however different their situations. The new super shoes will propel athletes to an unprecedented number of Olympic and other records. Knees will be taken on podiums. 13-year old skateboarder Sky Brown will excel for Britain. American gymnast Simone Biles will shine for the world.

But the joy of the Olympics is the confounding of prior expectations. Which is just one reason why I’ve persistently spoken out against the dull spreadsheet of a medal target, so beloved for so long by Britain’s funding agency, UK Sport. You can’t compress the efforts over many years of the myriad athletes across the wide variety of sports that make up an Olympic team into a single numerical objective.

Prepare the team to be the best it can be to take on the world, then sit back and watch its athletes give of their best. By all means make cool-headed funding decisions for Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 once the dust has settled on Tokyo. But let’s not obsess about the medal table on a daily basis as has been the case in recent Games. It won’t improve individual athletes’ chances, and the sport is joyous enough as it is without the use of a medal calculator.

Thankfully, new leadership and the uncertainties created by the lack of sport worldwide over the past year and a half have encouraged UK Sport to back off medal targeting - at least in public - this year. Let’s hope this sets a new tone for the future.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that Tokyo has rather crept up on me as a sporting event, as opposed to a logistical challenge for our team. But now it’s here let’s enjoy the rich variety of excitement it has to offer. We’ve got used to watching made-for-television elite sport during the pandemic, and I have no doubt that the Games will thrill in spite of empty stadia. The Japanese people deserve our engagement and our gratitude. It’s the very least we can offer them.

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