There are risks but it would be unfair if Tokyo Olympics did not go ahead
No matter who you are, or what sports you enjoy, the Olympics remains the greatest show on earth. It’s bigger than anything in football. Bigger than anything in any other sport. And, while I know there are many who don’t feel it is right that Tokyo 2020 is taking place during a global pandemic, I respectfully disagree and can’t wait for the Games to get under way.
Let me try to explain why. It’s about wanting the best athletes in the world to have the opportunity to display their talents on the biggest stage of all, so they can provide a better life for themselves and their families.
It’s about those 70% of athletes for whom Tokyo will be the only Games of their careers, fulfilling their childhood dreams, and hopefully inspire the next generation to do the same. And it’s about the select few getting the chance to immortalise themselves as one of the greatest by becoming an Olympic champion.
I know I am biased, having had the chance to compete in three Olympic Games. And I know there are risks. There always are in life. But with so many athletes and members of the media vaccinated, and with so many precautions in place, most experts seem to believe the chances of the Olympics becoming a superspreader event are low given the lack of crowds.
With all that in mind, wouldn’t it be unfair and hypocritical to allow the rest of the sporting world to crisscross the globe and play in front of supporters, as we saw at Euro 2020, but stop Olympians doing the same? I honestly believe the organisers have made the Games as safe as they can possibly be. That said, no system is perfect.
On Sunday my heart went out to the six athletes in the Team GB athletics squad who were told to self-isolate after coming into contact with a member of the public who had Covid on their flight to Tokyo. That is such rotten luck. I only hope it won’t affect their chances.
When I think back to my preparations for London 2012, the athletics squad went to Portugal to escape the pressures at home and we were able to train hard and relax. I remember our resort was really popular with German families – we all ended up watching the opening ceremony all together on a big screen. This time round there will be no release valve. The need to quarantine – and the nagging fear that they might catch the virus – will play constantly on athletes’ minds.
I never thought British athletes would face even more stress than at London 2012. Tokyo, though, could be even tougher than a home Games for some because the pressures are so unique.
The advice you get when approaching a major championships is to regard it as just any other competition: to tell yourself that the fundamentals are the same and the rest will follow. For me, it meant I was running in a straight line and jumping into a sandpit. Nothing more. But that’s not easy when it comes to the Olympics at the best of times – let alone when you are having to abide by a list of rules running into dozens of pages.
When I competed I liked to venture out into the athletes’ village, to one of the little coffee stands to meet friends from other countries, or to spend a couple of hours in the food hall shooting the breeze. That is not allowed in Japan. Inevitably athletes will spend more time in their rooms.
Without multiple distractions the magnitude of the Olympics could set in. I know for sure that there will be some athletes who will talk themselves out of a performance. I’ve been there myself – it starts to swallow you up.
That’s not the only thing the athletes will have to deal with, of course. The atmosphere in the stadiums is going to be very weird, too. Athletics has brought in a top French DJ and artificial crowd noise, based on cheering at previous Games, will be pumped into stadiums. But it won’t be the same. We all remember iconic moments, such as Usain Bolt putting his finger to his lips to ask the crowd to be quiet because they were screaming too much. This time it’ll be the DJ being told to take off his headphones and quieten down the beats.
I was always someone who thrived on having an atmosphere. Hearing 80,000 clapping in unison at London 2012 felt like being plugged into a massive electric current. But not everyone is the same. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, for instance, one of my competitors utterly bottled it because of the atmosphere. I won’t mention his name but at one point he said: “I can’t deal with the crowd, they’re too noisy. There’s too much pressure.” At Tokyo 2020, I imagine the roles would be reversed. I would be the one telling him: “I’m struggling a bit here.”