The EHV-1 crisis that blighted the Spanish jumping tours seems under control (nothing short of miraculous), while the FEI is moving mountains to provide prep events and opportunities through June for those still without their Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MERs) for Tokyo.
The Olympic organisers are adamant all events can go ahead safely in their own Covid-secure “bubble.” Contenders are pressing ahead with preparations ‒ now is, after all, hardly the time to pause ‒ and sharing news of their Tokyo hopes and dreams in the unshakeable belief they’ll be going to Japan.
But never mind bubbles. I feel I’m in a parallel universe when reading the non-sporting media, especially the major news organisations covering the Far East. Out in the real world, experts are incredulous that the Olympics are still going ahead when so many countries are now in third or even fourth waves of coronavirus.
That’s before you even consider the viewpoint of the Japanese themselves. Regular opinion polls have at least 80% of the population preferring cancellation or another postponement, while experts project that Japan could even be in another state of emergency ‒ a status it switches on and off ‒ by July.
I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, but will anyone really be surprised if the Tokyo Olympics are called off yet again? It’s really not looking good. The Diving World Cup in Tokyo is the latest test event to be cancelled, at two weeks’ notice, not by the Olympic organisers but by the sport’s governing body FINA. FINA gave its member federations the heads-up last week, saying the planned Covid-19 precautions “will not properly ensure” athletes’ safety and “did not take all the necessary measures to ensure successful and fair” competition. This hardly chimes with the confidence exuded by the president of the organising committee as of April 3.
A news report by Associated Press (AP) has Dr Norio Sugaya, an infectious disease specialist at Yokohama Keiyu Hospital, saying that Japan is a “dangerous” place at the moment, and that vaccinating 50-70 per cent of the general public should be “a prerequisite” by the opening day of the Games, July 23.
Yet widespread vaccination seems highly unlikely given Japan’s glacier-slow rollout so far. Under one percent of the Japanese population, all of them medical professionals, have been vaccinated so far. Controversial politician Taro Yamamoto described going ahead with the Games as “madness: if Japan has not been able to protect its own people, it cannot claim to be able to protect people from all over the world.”
Even though there will be no foreign spectators ‒ a recent decision presented as unfortunate rather than monumental ‒ tens of thousands of athletes, officials and media will still be entering Japan over a short period. Taisuke Nakata and Daisuke Fujii, professors of economics at the University of Tokyo, project that daily infection cases amongst the general population in Tokyo will peak in July, right about the time the Olympics are on.
With the best will in the world, you can’t keep the Olympic family wholly apart from the general population. Due to a masterpiece of mistiming, Tokyo is the worst possible host for any kind of global event during a pandemic ‒ one of the most populated cities on earth, with 36 million citizens and a density 2.4 times that of New York City. Many Olympic venues are shoehorned into areas of high residential or commercial occupancy (see satellite image of the main equestrian centre above) with precious little open space within or nearby. Where will people disperse without encountering local residents in the event of having to evacuate the venue because of a more conventional emergency ‒ a bomb scare, for instance?
It’s physically impossible to socially distance yourself while going about your essential business in Tokyo. One recent study instead attributed Japan’s relatively low Covid death rate of 9,000 souls (by the end of March, 2021) to the country’s long-established practice of mask-wearing to reduce any kind of respiratory disease in the winter months, its early detection methods and prompt isolation of clusters and very advanced medical care. The latter results from previous experience with SARS, which itself may have provided a degree of herd immunity to Covid 19.
Significantly, most Covid cases in Japan are perceived to have come in from Europe. No wonder the Japanese fear an invasion from countries that have been patently unable to curb the disease: all the Japanese good work will be undone by the mother of all super-spreader events.
Despite the axing of ticket sales to foreigners, Japanese news agency Kyodo has reported that 90,000 people will nonetheless enter Japan from abroad, of which only 30,000 are athletes, coaches, staff and officials. The IOC will now reduce accreditation to those with “essential and operational responsibilities.”
Equestrian sport has always been very demanding in terms of Olympic accreditations. The horse can’t manage without its rider, groom and albeit shared vets, farriers and trainers. So who will be deemed non-essential? Owners, I guess. The IOC has issued no official instructions on this topic in months, simply promising an update “in the spring.”
Another important debate could be had over level playing fields in terms of Covid vaccination of athletes, over which senior IOC members cannot agree. Canada’s IOC member (and former IOC vice president) Dick Pound has suggested athletes should be prioritised. But current president Thomas Bach is against athletes jumping the queue and will leave the decision to governments. While some countries will facilitate their athletes, key equestrian nations like Canada, Germany and Britain are not, and are vaccinating their vulnerable populations first.
Goodness knows what turmoil this alone is causing behind the scenes at the IOC. Thomas Bach recently welcomed the Chinese offer to provide its own vaccines free to all Olympic athletes worldwide before having to backtrack because the medical regulators in so many countries ‒ notably in the west ‒ have not approved it.
If Tokyo does manage to go ahead, how meaningful can the medal events actually be? Its important for new riders to come through, and we’ll never tire of reading (or writing) about riders who have triumphed against the odds. But I don’t agree that rank outsiders can or should become the Olympic champion ‒ that ultimate accolade should reflect consistency and excellence, the reason we regard those riders who produce the goods again and again with so many different horses with such awe.
Unlike other sports, equestrian has always had a significant element of luck on the day. We have now consciously added another layer of lottery. We have no real idea how three to a team and no drop score, and/or parachuting in a new rider part-way through will work, nor the staging of the team event after the individual in jumping.
Horse sport at Tokyo was already more liable to a “freak result” because of these unpopular format changes. What if key equestrian nations have to drop out at short notice due to escalating Covid or another neurological EHV-1 outbreak at home, further diluting the quality and quantity of the field? Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) chastised Europe for its “unacceptably slow” Covid vaccine rollout and said infection rates across the wider European continent were the most “worrying” they have been for months ‒ the region fielding the largest proportion of likely medallists in equestrianism.
The Moscow 1980 field was weakened for reasons of political boycott. I had to look up who won what at the real thing ‒ the last time Bulgaria and Romania made the podium ‒ though I easily recall who won the individual golds at the equestrian alternatives: Hugo Simon, Nils Haagensen, Christine Stuckleberger.
And what about those who, through no fault of their own, can’t get their MERs in time? Even two-time Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester haven’t got theirs yet with their preferred Tokyo rides Gio and En Vogue, due to travel constraints on the Brits and a lack of applicable FEI shows at home over the past 12 months. Their best hope is an only-just -arranged show at Wellington (the UK’s Wellington) in May.
Due to the heat, the Tokyo eventing cross-country will be reduced to eight minutes ‒ not for the first time in the Far East. In normal circumstances, that is arguably not an authentic long- format cross-country test. But with so many horses and riders unable to prepare “normally” for a championship three-day event, for safety’s sake maybe a shorter cross-country this time round is not such a bad thing!
Everyone who gets to Tokyo will deserve a medal just for turning up, even though this kind of taking part was not quite what Baron de Coubertin espoused 100 years ago. The non-athletic challenges for those striving for Tokyo match anything else they’ll ever have attempted on the field of play. If it happens, Tokyo will be remembered for generations to come as the triumph of hope over experience.