Returning Japanese: Rescheduling the 2020 Olympic Games

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo have been rescheduled to summer 2021, a decision which requires gold medals in logistical gymnastics.

Ever thought what goes into sending a team to the Olympics? And what happens when they are postponed?

I’m not talking about hosting – the building, the cost, the galvanising of a nation – just the simple matter of getting a team from over here to over there.
I’m talking about the work that goes into organising the selection, transportation and accommodation for athletes, coaches, staff and equipment. The work that goes into doing all that – and then postponing all that, and then having to do all that all over again 12 months later.

Covid-19 has put the athletes in a spin, of that there’s no doubt. Four years’ preparation, agonies of selection, careers on hold. Now, there are new uncertainties around selection, qualifying standards, money.

BC – before coronavirus – 57% of athletes had qualified for the Games. With venues closed they can’t train, causing mass anxiety. With all qualification events cancelled, the 43% who had not secured their places are also stressed, wondering how the sporting calendar will be reshaped to give them a chance.

Behind every athlete too there are parents and partners who booked flights and hotels, coaches who had planned training to the last detail and a wealth of commercial interests – sponsors, media, suppliers. There’s also an organisation in each country responsible for pulling the whole thing together. In the UK it’s the British Olympic Association, in Ireland it’s the Olympic Federation of Ireland.

Tricia Heberle is the Chef de Mission for Team Ireland. Each national team has a Chef and as far as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is concerned, the Chef is in charge.
Positive drugs test? Call the Chef.
Trouble in the village? Call the Chef?
Athletes defecting (it happens)? Call the Chef.
Some Chefs are figure-heads, others get their hands dirty and Heberle is one of the latter, in the thick of the action.

“There’s no doubt its been a challenging time,” she said.

We were all aiming for this great festival so we have all been disappointed around the turn of the events. It is hard for the athletes to stay upbeat but they also have to understand that there is a bigger picture here which is the health and safety of the country as a whole. This global pandemic is much bigger than sport. However, we now have some certainty regarding the rescheduling and at least we can work towards that.

So, what has to be done, between now and July 2021? Here’s the inside guide to the Chef de Mission’s brief.

Sort out the athletes
This should be the easy bit – once the qualification processes are in place and you’ve gone through the rigmarole of selecting them and dealing with legal challenges from those who weren’t picked. Then they have to be accredited. This is basically a check to prove they are who they say they are and are entitled to compete and live in the Olympic Village. Items needed for this process include a passport and a passport photo. So, not a passport which expires before the Games start and not a photo which includes the horse (equestrian competitors please note) or a sexy shot of you in your Speedos (whether or not you are a swimmer). Heberle had all the above.

Sort out the backroom staff
Athletes need coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, nutritionists, psychologists, performance analysts and physiologists. I know, it’s mad isn’t it.
If you’ve got eventers, show jumpers and dressage competitors (as Ireland have) it’s even more complicated. Add vets, farriers and grooms to the above.
There isn’t room for all of them at the Olympics so Heberle and her team have the final say-so on who gets accredited and who doesn’t. That obviously makes her popular with some and not so much with others.

 Sort out the kit
Team kit is team kit, no matter who your personal sponsors might be. So, Rory McIlroy, the World No 1 golfer who is paid gazillions by Nike, will be wearing Team Ireland Adidas. There’s a kit for competition, a kit for training, a kit for casual and, of course, a kit for the opening ceremony. And all that gear has to fit the smallest gymnast, the biggest weightlifter and the tallest basketballer. Anyone who contravenes strict IOC sponsorship rules re the size and placement of logos will be in big trouble. Yep, call the Chef!

Sort out the equipment
Before the postponement, the equipment Team Ireland was having to get to Tokyo included three sailing boats, four rowing boats, two canoes and nine horses. No, I’ve no idea either.

Sort out accommodation
Competitors and some key staff get to stay in the Olympic Village. You’d think it would be all kitted out, but that’s not the case. The rooms have a bed and a bedside table, so most Chefs will be heading to Ikea Tokyo to add some comfort and colour. There’s not room for everyone so some important staff have to stay in hotels; you can imagine the rush to find affordable rooms in locations near venues and transport. All that work went by the wayside with the postponement and will have to be confirmed again.

Because of the time difference, ‘holding camps’ had to be organised so athletes could arrive in Japan before the Games, acclimatise, get rid of jet-lag – and keep training. The Irish had built good relationships with three holding camp venues, each of whom appear still to be keen hosts.

Sort out flights
Team Ireland have a deal with Qatar Airways and are set to head to the Games via Doha.
Organising departures and returns is no easy task; athletes can be competing all over the globe right up to the Games and will head off to competitions all over the globe when they’re done.
Will they all stay to the end, even if their events are finished (swimmers who compete in the first week are notorious for running riot in the second)? It makes for quite a spreadsheet.

The above is a snapshot, it’s not even the half of it.

Beyond the mechanics is the building of relationships with 23 sports, dealing with the media, supporting athletes and coaches. There’s the liaising with the organising committee in Japan, the worry around finances and politics. There’s the nagging anxiety that you have done all you could to enable the athletes to perform at their best at the biggest event of their careers.

The 2020 Games have been rescheduled to July-August 2021 but until the world has a grip on the coronavirus even that is not cast in stone. Sponsors, suppliers and even national airlines could cease to exist in the meantime – and the survivors may have to shift their priorities away from sport.

Whatever the outcome, getting a team anywhere near the Olympics has to be a logistical and organisational triumph, even without the added complication of a global pandemic.

Call the Chefs …. and hand out gold medals all round!

Follow Tricia’s journey on Twitter @PattyFblp