When the road to Tokyo is a dead end

As this edition of the Holland Times goes to press, the athletes of the world are packing their bags and boarding planes to converge on Tokyo, Japan for the games of the XXXII Olympiad scheduled to be held from 23 July to 8 August 2021.  Originally scheduled to take place from 24 July to 9 August 2020, the event was postponed in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be held largely behind closed doors with no spectators permitted under the state of emergency currently in effect in the land of the rising sun. 

Tokyo will host the Summer Games for the second time.  The first time was in 1964 and is celebrated as not only one of the most beautiful versions of the modern games but perhaps the summit of post-war Japan’s rise from the ashes.  What many people do not realize is that Tokyo was slated to hold its first Olympic Games in 1940 which were cancelled due to the Second World War.  Without question, the 2020 (as they are still officially called) Tokyo Olympics will be markedly different, perhaps controversial and certainly under great scrutiny but in the context of the history of the Olympic Games perhaps not so unprecedented.  The headlines are full of speculation on who will be turning up and who will be winning in Tokyo but there are several things of which we can be fairly certain, namely, we know who is not turning up and who will most definitely not be winning so we’ll turn the focus to that.  This is by no means an exercise in schadenfreude, it is a chance to reflect on the disappointment of all those who will miss out on the upcoming Summer Games.  As Baron Pierre de Coubertin famously said, “It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts”, it follows that not taking part is a loss and some cases tantamount to tragedy. 

The Olympians, their coaches and officials chosen to represent the Netherlands turned up in early July at Papendal, the Dutch Olympic Committee headquarters near Arnhem to pick up their signature orange togs for the Summer Games.   No athletic or travel gear was ordered for either the men’s or women’s volleyball teams as both had failed to qualify for the Tokyo games.  No round trip tickets to Narita Airport have been ordered for the Dutch baseball or softball teams either as both squads failed to secure a place – something which leaves both sports in a state of limbo as their own status within the Olympic movement remains precarious.   Also missing from the travel itinerary is women’s gymnastics coach Vincent Wevers.  Wevers had been relieved of his duties following accusations of abusive training methods.  He had won a court case for reinstatement only to have the ruling overturned on appeal by Dutch Gymnastics.  At least 50% of the women’s team in Tokyo is not happy with exclusion – two of the four women competing for the Netherlands are his twin daughters, Sanne and Lieke Wevers.

The United States is expected to once again dominate the medals table in Tokyo but they are also having their own issues with athletes missing out on the big event in the Japanese capital.  Several top medal candidates found themselves on the wrong end of the anti-doping regulations.  In June, The Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld a four-year suspension for Shelby Houlihan, who holds American records for 1,500- and 5,000-meter races and tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.  Houlihan maintains that she must have ingested the forbidden substance while eating a pork burrito from a food truck.   Also missing the Summer Games will be Sha’Carri Richardson.  Richardson was the odds-on favorite to win the 100-meter competition in the Olympic Athletics competition.  She was suspended for one month after testing positive for THC, the chemical in cannabis.  Richardson failed a drug test following her Olympic qualifying 100-meter race victory at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, on June 19, according to the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Athletics fans will also have to do without distance-running legend Kenenisa Bekele who was left off Ethiopia’s Olympic team despite running the second-fastest marathon in history two years ago.   Bekele, 39, did not run the Ethiopian Olympic Trials in either the marathon are on the track this spring.  He reportedly said the 99-day gap between the marathon trials and the Olympic marathon was too short. Bekele held the 5000m and 10,000m world records from 2004 until last year, but last raced on the track at the 2016 Olympic Trials, when he failed to finish the 10,000m. Bekele was left off Ethiopia’s Rio Olympic team despite being Ethiopia’s top finisher at that spring’s London Marathon.  His manager, the Dutchman Jos Hermans is perplexed by the omission and reports that Bekele will be training in the Netherlands rather than pounding the pavement at the Summer Games venue in Sapporo where the marathon will be run. 

Tennis superstar Serena Williams announced during a pre-Wimbledon press conference that she will not be competing at the Tokyo Olympics.  Williams, who is a four-time Olympic gold medalist, did not give a reason as to why she did not plan to attend.  In previous Summer Games, Williams won gold for the United States in both singles and doubles tennis at the 2012 London Olympics, in doubles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Her gold medals for doubles were all shared with her older sister Venus.

By far, the most noticeable omission at the Tokyo games will be the spectators.  Earlier this year, the word came down from the local organizing committee that spectators from outside Japan would not be permitted to attend and then in early July the announcement was made that there would be no spectators whatsoever allowed at the Olympic competitions.  While we have plenty of experience now with empty venues, it did not become familiar, pleasant or the accepted norm.  Sadly, we will tally more losers in Japan, the spectators who would have made lifetime memories watching the athletes compete and the athletes in turn who will have to complete their Olympic journey in relative solitude.  We should all once again take note of the wise words of Pierre de Coubertin and realize that being able to complete the journey is already quite the accomplishment. 

Written by John Mahnen