/ 26 March 2020

Olympics halt good for everyone

Burned out: A perfomer stands next to the Olympic flame during the flame handover ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, on March 19 in Athens. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

It’s finally happened. With a growing angry mob banging at the door of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a postponement of Tokyo 2020 was no longer negotiable. The delayed announcement brings an end to the crippling uncertainty that has gripped the international athletic community in recent weeks.

Until now, the IOC had been quite happy to bury its head in the sand and adopt a wait-and-see approach. But with Canada and Australia pulling out and Britain expected to do the same, it seems the pressure compelled the committee members to make the right decision, even if their morals did not.

As Covid-19 spread rapidly across the globe, the IOC insisted that athletes operate under the assumption that everything will go ahead as planned in July. Easier said than done during lockdowns and self-isolation.

Consider South African 200m record holder Clarence Munyai. Less than two weeks ago, he was celebrating his qualification for the Olympics. By the time we spoke last Friday, he had been forced into a roster of select athletes allowed to use the Tuks High Performance Centre facilities. On Monday he wasn’t training – his coach advised him to see if President Cyril Ramaphosa would implement a rumoured lockdown that evening. On Tuesday morning, after it had been announced, he had no choice but to accept the situation and do what he could from home.

“My coach will send me a programme,” he said. “We’re going to work on the small stuff like hamstring work – if we do that right, we can keep injuries at bay when we do start again.”

Despite the prospect of fulfilling a dream and winning an Olympic medal, Munyai would rather wait than compromise the achievement with an asterisk.

“It’s not feasible and smart to have the Olympic Games now. If I go, I want it to be fair to everyone. I don’t want to go and then be told: ‘No, this person couldn’t train for five or six months.’”

As difficult as it would have been for qualified athletes to prepare for the Games, the real challenge lay with those who had not yet earned times sufficient to book their ticket to Tokyo. With races everywhere called off, the prospect of offering a fair chance for everyone to do so between now and June was non-existent.

The postponement does have its silver linings for Team SA. Wayde van Niekerk has been tentative in his return to action after a long injury lay-off, and the added year will mean there’s no reason to fast-track it. Fellow gold medal athlete Caster Semenya has indicated her intentions to run the 200m and will now have extra time to come to terms with the nuances of the event.

For everyone, the overdue postponement of the Games affords an opportunity to rest and reflect. Yet even in a confined space there will always be an opportunity to retain a core level of fitness.

“My plans are simple,” said Paralympian and multiple world record-holder Mpumelelo Mhlongo. “Because we know it’s going to be 2021 for Tokyo, these three weeks will be more about keeping active. I’ll be going back to the basics of yoga, and plyometrics within the yard. I at least have a couple of stairs I can use. And then a lot of more band-resistance work.

“We’ve had to do that in the past when I’ve had injuries. So we have a lot of exercises around that. It gives you the same as equipment, just obviously a lot less weight. We’ll focus on technique and keeping the movement going, rather than forcing an issue by finding spaces where we can still use a track. It would be irresponsible; we all have a civic duty at the moment.”

With the Olympics and Paralympics postponed, athletes like Mhlongo can remain socially responsible with the peace of mind that it won’t compromise their careers.

History of Olympics 

While the decision by Olympic organisers to hold off on postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games befuddled critics, it is important to understand that they are operating under a defiant ethos that prides itself on continuing the quadrennial tradition in the face of immense challenge.

The Games have been cancelled only three times – and never postponed – since their modern inception in 1896. The first inevitably came in 1916 in the midst of World War I, “the war to end all wars”.

Yet, by 1920, one year after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, they went ahead in Antwerp, Belgium and attracted what was then a record number of participants (2 626). During the early stages of the conflict, Germany had torn through neutral Belgium in an effort to circumvent France’s fortified defences at its own border, and had left almost nothing standing in the way of infrastructure.

Throughout the interwar era, the Olympics continued, including during the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler’s tumultuous rise to power. Berlin 1936 would even produce one of the most storied moments in Olympic history as black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals in front of the Nazis.

The next two cancellations were forced when World War II arrived three years later. Tokyo and London, the two cities slated for 1940 and 1944 respectively, would instead essentially be levelled by some of the worst civilian bombing our species has ever seen.

By 1948, however, King George VI proudly opened the London Games. They have continued ever since, come what may – including terrorist attacks and mass boycotts like we saw in 1980, when 66 countries pulled out of the Moscow Games in protest against the Soviet–Afghan War. — Luke Feltham