Postponement of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
The Olympic Games has a tremendous capacity to inspire and energise the world. In these days of lockdown, it was striking that there were so many calls for the BBC to screen the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games. A good many Brits remember that day as one of inspiration, hope and excitement. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are all in need of some of those qualities. Perhaps that was one reason why the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics seemed at once disappointing, yet laced with a tinge of hope that in 2021 the show might still go on.
Perhaps, those most affected were the athletes and coaches who were in the midst of tough training programmes, some fighting for selection in teams or crews until the word came out to hunker down at home. For rowers that meant time on the water – the one type of training that we love to do – was replaced by endless kilometres on the static rowing machine in garages, living rooms or back gardens.
British oarsman Ollie Cook had been fuelled by a burning desire to become an Olympian – having just missed selection in 2016. He was given notice of his selection in the GB four just days before the Games were postponed. At that point he felt like: ‘a dream that I once had tentatively in my grasp suddenly disappeared.’ Cook briefly hit a low point, stepping off his erg during a training session: ‘something I don’t think I’ve done before (or will do again).
For Cook’s team mate, Tom Ransley, the postponement of the Games was enough to edge him into retirement. And the man who won an eight’s bronze in London and gold in Rio wrote powerfully that one more year of sacrifice and training would be more than he could take.
‘My time as a rower is up. After 20 years and two Olympic medals I have come to the realisation that I have nothing more to give and nothing left to gain.’
Of course the resilience and self-belief of all the British team’s rowers will be sorely tested by this period of isolated training. But there will also be a belief that those who emerge most successfully from this period will gain a performance advantage over their rivals. It has even been suggested that the relatively young age of the British team might mean that they will be even more competitive against the rest of the world in 2021 than might have been the case this year.
So despite the adversity – or maybe because of it – there have been some remarkable stories to emerge. Irish sculler Philip Doyle had put his medical career on hold in an attempt to win the double sculls Olympic title in Tokyo. A couple of weeks ago the world silver medalist was in training with the Irish team at their Cork base. Now he has changed his life completely, having taken a job as a doctor on the general medicine ward of Newry Daisy Hill hospital.
‘I have to see this one through first explained Doyle.’
Previous Olympic Boycotts – Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984
The last time that participation in the Olympics were threatened, in both 1980 and 1984, this time with boycotts, also saw similar stories of heartache and triumph in adversity. Faced with the possibility that their participation in the Games could be snatched away from them by government sanctions the athletes mobilised to make their voice heard.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Back had unwittingly made the Moscow Olympics a pawn in the Cold War. Led by the USA’s President Jimmy Carter and backed up by British Prime-minister Margaret Thatcher, the West’s political leaders called for their sports leaders to boycott the Moscow Games in protest. Olympic sport was to be the sole weapon in this episode of the Cold War. Trade between the Soviet bloc and the West was to carry on as normal.
In Britain, the fight to go to the Games got dirty. Images of burnt children, supposedly the victims of Soviet napalm attacks were sent to athletes. Those who were employees of the civil service, police or armed forces were told that if they went to the Games it would be at the expense of their jobs. Olympic sponsors, both in the USA and Britain withdrew their support from the teams. There was no question that in the eyes of both governments, it was the patriotic duty of athletes not to go and for sports administrators to help them realise that.
For a while it seemed like we were being swept along by events that were far outside of our control. But bit by bit an athlete lobby and voice mobilised, forming a powerful presence at meetings like the Rowing governing body, or the debate in the House of Commons over the boycott. In the end that mobilisation tipped the balance; the British Olympic Association voted to attend the Games – though four individual sports chose not to go.
That was not the case in the USA, which had its own powerful athlete lobby. Such was the pressure from the Federal government that the US Olympic Committee voted not to go. Likewise, the Olympic administrators of the Federal Republic of Germany, who – unlike in Britain – received most of their funding from the government voted to boycott. Crushingly, the New Zealand Olympic rowing team heard they would not be going to Moscow as they were boarding the very plane that took them to Europe. Conversely, the Australian rowers only heard of their administrators decision that they would attend while at 30000 feet over Thailand.
Undoubtedly back in 1980, as in 2020, the Games were shaken to their very core by world events far outside of the control of athletes, or coaches. But in Moscow, they went on to become a marvelous celebration of sport – as they did four years later in Los Angeles, when this time the Soviet bloc countries missed the party.
The Olympic Games Inspire
At its best, the Olympics have the capacity to inspire and lift countless people. Already, hopes for the rescheduled Tokyo Games are that it could prove a focal point for a celebration of the world emerging from the global pandemic that is currently gripping it. One thing’s for sure the dream of going to Tokyo that lived in the hearts of athletes throughout the world may now seem a little dimmer than it once was. But soon enough it will brighten to lead those same competitors through to a better future.