It’s now 101 days to the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics. The uncertainties and delay in staging of the 2020 Games, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on training, qualification processes and mobility, means that for Pacific islands athletes, just making it to Japan will be a feat in itself.
Globally, 61% of the athlete quota places have already been allocated. 25% will be assigned during the remaining qualification period, which will run until 29 June; and the final 14% of athletes will be selected through rankings as per the respective qualification system for each sport.
Samoa boxers Marion Faustino Ah Tong and Tupuola Ato Plodzicki-Faoagali are the most recent Pacific island qualifiers for Japan, joining athletes in rugby, weightlifting, canoeing, and wrestling amongst other sports. Qualification processes continue in other disciplines, including athletics, swimming, judo, archery, and beach volleyball, where Vanuatu’s women stand a chance of qualifying.
Once they get to Japan, the athletes' experience will be very different from previous games, says Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) President Dr Robin Mitchell.
For a start, there will be no international spectators although how this applies to many national dignitaries—heads of states and sports minister who traditionally attend the Olympics—is unclear. They booked years ago, and Dr Mitchell says the hefty deposits they paid at that time are non-refundable.
Olympics playbooks lay out requirements for travel and participation in Japan. They will continue to be refined as the Games near, but Dr Mitchell is confident Pacific island delegations will be compliant, as “it’s fairly close to what we are practicing in the Western Pacific,” and follows WHO advice, noting that the region is used to dealing with health outbreaks and natural disasters.
Athletes and officials in Japan will need to keep a diary of their movements, will have to use Games rather than public transport, and will follow an activation plan if they do test positive for COVID.
“Our training centre pre-games is Fukuoka and [it]has direct flights. But for Games time, they would prefer to fly to Tokyo because they have specified lanes to go through, straight into the bus, to the village,” Dr Mitchell says.
“Once you get to Tokyo, there's quite a lot of changes in the sense that the Games Village will probably at the most only be up to a third full…You cannot go to a village until four days before your event. And then two days after you have to leave the village and Tokyo as well.”
“For us the big unknown is, how are we going to get there? And how do we get back again?” Dr Mitchell says. ONOC is looking at charter flights and one option is to use Nadi and Guam as staging points, where Pacific athletes can meet and then travel together.
ONOC has provided training and funding as part of the Olympics build-up, but also as part of sports and sports management/training development more broadly. This training series has been delivered online, from basic courses in meeting processes and book-keeping to Masters levels programs.
“We're getting quite smart at doing webinars and stuff like that…and Oceania tends to pilot a lot of projects,” Dr Mitchell says.
Will the 2020 Olympics still go ahead in July as scheduled? The International Olympic Committee says it will make a call within the next four weeks. Options could include a scaled-down version of the Games, a delay of several months, or rescheduling the Olympics to mid-2021.
In the meantime, Oceania National Olympic Committee (ONOC) President Dr Robin Mitchell has urged Pacific athletes to “continue to prepare as well as you can , always refer to your World Health [Organisation] representative if there’s one locally, or moreso your Ministry of Public Health and fit in with the government regulations… but find ways to continue training.”
Last week an official statement from ONOC quoted Dr Mitchell as saying: “ONOC fully supports the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in its commitment to stage the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“We share the view that we must be realistic but not panic.”
Speaking to Islands Business, Dr Mitchell said quite a few Pacific athletes continue to be based overseas: “in Japan , some in China, some in China during the worst crisis couldn’t get out; Tonga, Solomons, Vanuatu and probably Samoa as well because they had been training there before the Games. For Fiji I think there’s athletes in Japan, in Tokyo, near Narita.”
He says managing qualifications is currently one of the biggest concerns.
“We have six sports in Fiji that still have to qualify. [For qualification events] Fiji was hosting two, swimming and archery in April so both have been cancelled.”
Dr Mitchell says globally, 53 per cent of athletes have already qualified for the Tokyo Games.
“Most of April’s qualifications have been cancelled, we’ve agreed to extend the qualification date to the end of June and now we have to find countries that will host them, these qualifying events within the continent boundaries. For Oceania we have nine sports that have to qualify in Asia , one in Africa so logistically, it becomes expensive if we’re not able to have these confined tournaments for whatever reason, then selection will be based on ranking lists from previous competitions, which is difficult because people are improving,” Dr Mitchell says.
Fiji’s strongest Olympic prospect is its sevens rugby team. Dr Mitchell says given both the men’s and women’s teams have qualified: “they would need to actively lobby their president and officials so they can continue to train.” In the meantime he says players should continue with their indidual programs. Meanwhile plans by overseas rugby teams to come and train in Fiji have been deferred.
Despite the uncertainly, Dr Mitchell says the IOC needs to continue preparations due to the logistical requirements of coordinating 30 sports, security and other arrangements.