‘We must plan it will take place’: What it takes to postpone an Olympic Games *H&H Plus*

  • Putting back an Olympics by a year is a staggeringly huge undertaking. Lucy Higginson finds out what’s involved

    Just how hard is it to postpone Tokyo’s Olympics by a year?

    By this stage of the annus horribilis that is 2020, almost everyone has had to cancel or reschedule something sizeable. Be it a party, holiday, wedding or reunion, we’ve had to balance personal disappointment against the greater crisis, and spend hours unpicking plans, chasing up deposits, cancelling flights and more.

    Spare a thought then for the Tokyo Olympic Organising committee (TOKOG) who have had to postpone 2020’s biggest party of all, involving 41 different venues, 11,000 athletes and an anticipated 600,000 visitors from around the world.

    Toshiro Muto, TOKOG chief executive, explained to the media that numerous Olympic venues had already been booked for other purposes next year, producing scheduling conflicts that have had to be resolved. For other venues, it’s been a more straightforward question of extending leases.

    “Our plan was to return all of the Games venues once we had finished,” Muto explained as the postponement was announced. “So to hire them again means we have to pay additional costs for them and we might have to hire people until next year.”

    Chief among the facilities affected was the Athletes’ Village, built overlooking Tokyo Bay, and our riders’ base through the Games. As at other Olympics including Barcelona and London, this is to be converted into luxury apartments afterwards, and some 900 of them have already been sold to new owners who had expected to move in by next summer.

    “Even if it’s not a financial hit, it’s going to be a big inconvenience to them,” Zoe Ward, director of Tokyo Property Central told Asia Times. She believes buyers may now scour the small print of their contracts to see if they can pull out without losing their deposits.

    Not a huge shock

    The Olympic equestrian events are centred at the Japan Racing Association’s (JRA) Equestrian Park in Setagaya. The same site hosted the 1964 Tokyo Olympic equestrian events, but has been redeveloped and hired by TOKOG, and is one of the closest venues to the Athletes’ Village.

    Postponement “wasn’t a huge shock” by the time it was announced, says Alec Lochore, consultant equestrian sport manager for Tokyo, “just a disappointment”.

    “There are people seconded from other roles in Japan, and Europeans, Americans and Australians who now must stay for another year [to deliver the Games],” he explains. “Ownership of the venue will now revert back to JRA for a while, but they are generously moving their own plans back by a year.”

    The unexpected delay gives the organising team more time to test the venue, which has been developed enormously since last year’s test event.

    “They could now potentially arrange a dressage or jumping competition ahead of the Games,” agrees Alec. “I would if it were up to me, to check for snagging.”

    The island venue hosting the cross-country, Sea Forest, is due to become a National Park after the Games. Numerous fences were out and in place, explains Alec, and have had to be removed so they don’t suffer climatic damage.

    “All sorts of other equipment must now be stored too such as showjumps and dressage arenas,” he continues, “and the horse ambulances will now be stored in the UK.”

    As for the many international volunteers who had been lined up to help steward the equestrian events – roughly a third of volunteers for these Games are coming from overseas – it is unclear as yet how many can and will come next year instead.

    “We’ll have quite a high level of reliance on specialist volunteers such as fence judges, from places like New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Germany, and I know that we still will want those people,” says Alec. “I hope they can still come.”

    The FEI is also collaborating with the International Olympic Committee and TOKOG to identify areas “where we can improve cost efficiency and adapt the cost implications of the postponement with minimal impact on the sport and the athletes, always taking into account public health and economic contexts,” according to an FEI spokesperson.

    Avoiding temptation

    If we’re to find a bright side to this situation, Will Connell, director of sport for the US Equestrian Federation, believes that equestrianism is better equipped than many sports to handle the postponement.

    “We’re ideally placed to cope with coming out of Covid-19 because we’re all used to horses making us take unexpected leave from play, such as by going lame,” he says. “We know how to avoid the temptation to rush back. Secondly, biosecurity is second nature to us, especially at FEI events where there is tight stable security.”

    It’s also a source of some relief to everybody that the challenge of rearranging has fallen to a nation so utterly organised and efficient that apologetic announcements are made if a train is even one minute late.

    “The Japanese mentality regarding business priorities has helped,” agrees Will, for whom this will be a seventh Olympics as a sports manager. “They want the Games to work and for people to enjoy the visit and be proud of them.”

    Sophie Thomas, British Equestrian’s World Class Programme leader, who is responsible for many of the logistics for the British teams, has found this too.

    “The hotel we’d booked for owners and so on has been completely understanding,” she says.

    It’s a similar story for the property close to the equestrian venue that had been secured for equine staff who don’t get a bed by right in the grooms’ village or Athletes’ Village. This is a relief since “Japan is really tricky for private rental accommodation,” explains Sophie. “It’s just not the culture there.”

    The postponement was in some ways timed well, announced before food and forage had been shipped. One Team GB shipping container, crammed with things like buckets, bunting, banners, storm guards, stable drapes and more, was a week away from sailing and will sit for months now until it’s needed.

    From Sophie’s point of view, an Olympic postponement is easier than something similar befalling another championship.

    “We have huge support from the BOA [British Olympic Association] and BPA [British Paralympic Association], who arrange a lot of shipping, athlete accommodation, kit and so on,” she says. “In a World Championship year, that would have fallen to us.”

    In most cases, vets, selectors, team managers and other support staff will remain constant. There are some exceptions of course, and the FEI has the sad task of choosing a replacement for Jon Doney who was due to have officiated at his third Olympic Games in Tokyo, as president of the jumping ground jury, but who died unexpectedly in April.

    Delaying planned retirements

    British Equestrian is working on the assumption that exactly the same support team will be available to the British team, though in the States and other countries no doubt there are people who are delaying planned retirements.

    “They’re almost all going to carry on to next year, including selectors,” says Will. “You don’t want these to change until after the Games.”

    One big question is how the rescheduled Tokyo affects the rest of next year’s calendar. “We’re waiting to hear if other events will move their dates,” he says. “Normally you’d compete in an Olympics, review how it went, dust off a plan working towards the following Olympics and hit ‘go’ in November of that year.

    “Instead, we’ll come out of Tokyo 2021 and be less than a year out of the first opportunity to qualify for Paris,” he explains. He points out that championships like the Europeans (cancelled for 2021 because of the Tokyo clash, although it’s possible they may be reinstated) are used by federations to experiment with new rider combinations for future Olympics.

    “It means next year will be the equivalent of having to run two different plays but with one theatre,” he adds, but federations everywhere will just have to adapt. “Innovation must come out of this or the human race has failed.”

    Of course the elephant in the room is whether the global health situation will allow the Games to take place even in 2021. While lockdown eases around the world, no one yet knows when mass gatherings and unfettered international travel will be on the cards. The thought of losing the 2020 Games altogether is heartbreaking for athletes, support staff and organisers, not to mention the millions of us who love and follow sport.

    In the meanwhile, as Sophie Thomas explains: “We, like our athletes, have got to keep in a positive frame of mind, plan that it will take place and ignore the mutterings until anybody says otherwise.”

    Logistics at a glance

    • Organisers are extending leases as necessary on 41 venues, and the handover of the Athletes’ Village – which is being converted to luxury apartment conversions – to private owners is being deferred.
    • Sports federations report that Japanese hotel chains and the like have been exemplary about deferring contracts to next year, usually with no rearrangement fees.
    • Cross-country fences are being brought in from the Sea Forest course to protect them from the weather.
    • Storage is being arranged both in Japan and overseas for key pieces of equestrian kit, ranging from championship showjumps to horse ambulances.
    • The picture is not yet clear how many international volunteers for the equestrian events hope to attend next year instead.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 August 2020