•Many sportspersons consider the Olympics as their ultimate dream and the pinnacle of their sporting career
•As such, most of them, including Kenyans, are hoping the Tokyo Olympics will proceed as scheduled despite the ravaging coronavirus pandemic
•The state of affairs presents a huge headache for IOC, Local Organising Committee and the Japanese government
National boxing team ‘Hit Squad’ captain Nick Okoth was over the moon after securing his ticket to the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Kenya Defence Forces soldier scooped silver at the Africa Boxing Tokyo Olympics Qualifiers in Dakar in February last year despite losing to Zambian Evaristo Mulenga.
A second appearance at the Olympics is a chance for redemption after he lost to Mexican Arturo Santos Reyes in his maiden appearance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It is also an opportunity for Okoth to exit the boxing scene on a high by scooping a medal and cementing his place among the boxing greats in the country.
However, even as he fine-tunes his skills in readiness for the event, Okoth is in the midst of a storm raging over the Tokyo Olympics.
His dream is unfortunately intertwined with the fate of the quadrennial event, which hangs in the balance as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the world.
In his customary calm demeanour, nonetheless, Okoth chooses to surrender his fate to his maker.
“I understand the concerns around the Games and I agree with the need to protect people’s health above all else. That is the most important thing. It is God who is in control and if it comes to that the Games are cancelled, then who are we to contest that? Okoth says.
His saving grace is the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in which he plans to participate should his Olympics dream come to nought.
"I last participated in the Olympics in 2008 and since then, I have had to bid my time to finally get an opportunity to participate in this Olympics. I am hopeful everything will work out for the best, eventually. At least I have the chance to compete at the next Commonwealth Games," Okoth says.
Okoth’s prayer typifies every Olympian's present state of mind.
Many have been waiting for a long time to grace this grand stage even as debate rages on whether to postpone, again, cancel or proceed with the event.
On or not?
The Tokyo Olympics were initially scheduled for July-August last year until the raging coronavirus pandemic forced its postponement by a year.
The International Olympic Committee and Local Organising Committee expected the situation to have long abated by the time of the opening ceremony at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium on July 23.
However, six months to the event, the situation in Japan is worse than a year ago as the overall infections topped 407,000 as of February 10.
The number of daily infections had also increased to approximately 2,000 as per January this year with Tokyo reporting a record-high 2,447 infections in the second week of last month.
Considering that the country expects approximately 11,000 visitors during the three-week event, many Japanese have hit the panic button even as the LOC and the government puts on a brave face.
A public opinion poll conducted by Japan Broadcasting Corporation last month reported 77 per cent of Japanese want the Games either cancelled or postponed amidst the spiralling numbers.
Considering IOC has insisted the Games cannot be postponed further, they would have to cancel the event were they to make a decision based on this poll.
It is telling that the number of opposing voices among the Japanese has been increasing steadily since October last year.
Back then, an opinion poll by the media outlet revealed only 23 per cent wanted the games cancelled before this number increased to 32 per cent by December.
These dissenting voices have been amplified within government circles by Taro Kono, a cabinet minister who in January expressed doubts over the Games’ viability as infections continue to surge.
Elsewhere, Keith Mills, former chair of the 2012 London Olympics Organising Committee, believes the Japanese government is already planning to cancel the event.
“They may wait until the last minute in case the situation improves or if the vaccinations roll out faster. Personally, considering how the pandemic is evolving, it looks unlikely,” Mills said in an interview with BBC.
However, IOC and the LOC are adamant the Olympics will proceed regardless of how the Covid-19 situation evolves in Japan and globally.
IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly insisted the Games will proceed — a stance reinforced by his vice president John Coates, who said the event will happen regardless of the state of Covid-19 infections around the world.
Similarly, in his New Year’s speech, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assured that the Tokyo Olympics will materialise under safe and secure conditions amidst the emergence of a new variant of the virus first discovered in the United Kingdom.
Situation in Kenya
A thousand miles back home, the National Olympics Committee of Kenya has engaged the high gear in Team Kenya’s preparations for the global showpiece.
Various teams or athletes who have already qualified — as well as those hoping to — have been training for the past one year despite the virus's disruption to many sporting activities.
When quizzed on the prospect of cancellation, NOC-K president Paul Tergat insisted the thought had not crossed his mind.
“From where I sit, I want to assure you the Games will continue. I know there are many outlets speculating whether the Games will go or not. As a country, we are ready and cannot wait to compete against the rest," Tergat said.
The 2015 World Cross Country Championship silver medalist Bedan Karoki, who plies his trade in Japan, is similarly optimistic the Tokyo Olympics will proceed despite the state of affairs in the Asian country.
“From my interactions with them (Japanese), what I know is that they are still enthusiastic about the event and want it to happen. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and so most of those I talk to wish for it to proceed without any hitches,” Karoki said.
Karoki is fearful of how a cancellation will affect the psyche of many sportspersons whose ultimate dream is to feature in an Olympics.
Cancellation of the event, in his opinion, would undo the hard work these athletes have put in polishing the art and craft of their disciplines.
“The dream of an athlete is to one day participate in the Olympics and for those who have qualified, they know it is an opportunity they will probably never get in subsequent events. Some of them are at an advanced age and this summer’s event is the only chance they can get,” he says.
Likewise, Athletics Kenya President Jack Tuwei believes many athletes may lose the morale to train and even participate in future events.
"Cancelling the games after postponing them last year will hugely demoralise many athletes and discourage them from preparing for future events. We have the class of 1976 and 1980 many of whom still regret not participating in both Olympics after preparing for a long time," Tuwei says.
Even as IOC and the Tokyo Olympics mull over the fate of the event, Olympics javelin silver medalist Julius Yego advises them to consider the plight of athletes in whatever decision they make.
"Participating in the Olympics is the dream of every sportsperson. Many started preparing for Tokyo as soon as the Rio Olympics ended in 2016. That is almost six years that would go down the drain were the showpiece to be cancelled," Yego says.
Yego, who is hoping to make a second appearance at the Games, is optimistic the event will proceed noting that a lot can happen between now and July.
"Maybe things will have improved in Japan within the next six months. I don't want to imagine a situation where the Games will be cancelled. But if things worsen, then they are within their rights to cancel," he says.
Cost to Japan
The host country is in a catch-22; do they prioritise the safety of their citizens (a majority of who are elderly) or proceed with this prestigious event?
Economically, the staging of the Olympics does not make any sense as the government will have to fork out more money than the revenue the event will bring.
A proposal is also being mooted to host events behind closed doors.
When Japan clinched the bid to host the Games in 2013, they expected to earn approximately $2 billion (Sh218bn) in revenue while spending around $7.5 billion (Sh820bn).
As per audits by the government, this budget has ballooned to at least $25 billion (Sh2.7tr) due to additional Covid-related costs.
The University of Oxford estimates it to be the priciest Olympics in history.
Indeed, the Tokyo Olympics is evidence of how the pandemic has ravaged the sports sector worldwide.
It also shows how sports unifies all countries in that the cancellation will not only affect the Japanese but the entire world.
No one knows how the pandemic will pan out and thus it is fingers crossed for all in the hope that this cloudy period clears away in time for the Summer Games.