LANE ONE: College football showed that being “athlete-centric” means the Tokyo 2020 Games will go on

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the Offensive Most Valuable Player in the 2021 Allstate Sugar Bowl (Photo: Allstate Sugar Bowl)

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The news reports from Japan are filled with anti-Olympic petitions and polls, screaming for the cancellation of the Tokyo 2020 Games, set to begin on 23 July.

A weekend poll by the Kyodo News Service received 1,065 responses with some interesting results from its report:

Holding the Games: 59.7% favor cancellation, 25.2% approve if without spectators, 12.6% approve with limited spectators.

Virus concern: 87.7% concerned about virus spread by athletes and officials.

Virus trend: 90.3% concerned about the spread of Covid-19 in Japan.

Vaccine availability: 85.0% said the vaccine rollout has been too slow.

Government response: 71.5% are upset with the handling of the virus.

Against all this was a remarkable response to another question:

“Asked whether Japanese Olympics and Paralympics athletes should be given priority in being vaccinated, 53.9 percent of respondents said the athletes should be, while 13.1 percent said otherwise and 32.7 percent replied they cannot give a clear response.”


If the Games are so unpopular and the vaccination program so poorly rolled out, why a 54-13% favorable reply to priority vaccinations of Japanese athletes?

Last Friday, three-time Tokyo gubernatorial candidate Kenji Utsunomiyadelivered” his online petition to cancel the Games, with 351,868 signatures. It’s still available and as of 11 a.m. Pacific time today (17th), it had 370,241 signees.

However, it’s worth noting that it reached 200,000 signatures in just more than two days (49:23 from 5 to 7 May) but not even that many in the succeeding 10 days.

What does all this tell us? The Kyodo poll results as reported show high concern about the coronavirus and the country’s vaccination rate (85-87-90%), high concern about the government’s response (71.5%) and a significantly lower percentage in favor of canceling the Games (59.7%).

Does this ring a bell?

Late last summer, the college football season was supposed to collapse, right? Remember the timeline:

08 August: The Mid-American Conference postpones its season.
10 August: The Mountain West Conference postpones its season.
11 August: The Big Ten and Pacific-12 Conferences postpone their seasons.

At that point, all of college football was widely expected to cancel for 2020. But:

12 August: The Big 12 announced a 10-game season schedule.
16 August: Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields starts a “We Want to Play” petition
17 August: The Southeastern Conference announces its schedule.

Fields’s petition gathered more than 240,000 signatures in just more than a day and it had an impact:

16 September: The Big Ten Conference announces it will play.
24 September: The Pacific-12 Conference announces it will play.
24 September: The Mountain West Conference announces it will play.
25 September: The Mid-American Conference announces it will play.

Only three schools in the 130-member Football Bowl Subdivision – independents Connecticut and New Mexico State, and Old Dominion (C-USA) – decided not to play in the fall. (At an average of 100 players per school and 127 schools, that’s 12,700 players: more than will participate in Tokyo by more than 1,500!)

The season was held and a champion was crowned. There were trials and tribulations across the five months of games from September to January, but it worked. The Olympic and Paralympic Games will come and go in two weeks apiece.

The Japanese public is right to be concerned with its public health status, and with elections due in the fall, its political leaders are under pressure to step up the pace of vaccinations across the country.

But the college football season – and the NFL season for that matter – demonstrated that sport can be played in an ascetic, antiseptic and austere environment as is being planned for the Tokyo Games. That will likely include:

● No spectators of any kind.
● Continued pressure to lower the number of officials attending.
Extreme attention to testing, including daily testing for athletes.
● Tokyo residents told they must stay away from the Games.

With a third edition of the IOC’s “Playbooks” for athletes, officials, media and others coming in June, look for even stiffer requirements. The current program is for athletes to come as much as five days prior to their events and leave two days after; look for this to be shaved further.

Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshiro Muto said last week that the expected 180,000 visiting officials will total no more than 90,000 now … and Muto added, “The number may be really small if we consider (narrowing it down) to just individuals without whom the Olympics cannot take place.” Look for that 90,000 figure to get smaller.

The cynics who wail that the Games are going on only to allow the International Olympic Committee to collect its television and sponsorship monies conveniently forget last year’s comments that, for its part, the IOC would have been better off financially to cancel the Games, based on its insurance coverage.

But it did not and has stayed the course. Thanks to excellent research provided by founder Bill Mallon (USA), Tokyo will be the only Olympic opportunity for 73.7% of the expected 11,091 athletes.

That’s 8,147 one-and-done Olympians. Mallon’s analysis of all Olympic Games showed that of 114,887 athletes who have ever competed in the summer Games, 84,705 (73.7%) were in one Games only. Some 21,542 (18.8%) appeared in two Games and just 6,398 (5.6%) in three. That’s 98.1% of the all-time total.

This is the responsibility that comes with being “athlete-centric.” The Big Ten Conference did not take into account the determination of Ohio State’s Fields and others who used their voice – there’s that “athlete’s voice” again – to change the stance of a conference which had stated that its decision to postpone “will not be revisited.”

Is it possible that the 2020 Games will be cancelled? Sure, if the coronavirus rages out of control, at a level far greater than it is now, but even the current higher infection rate is a fraction of what has been experienced elsewhere and Tokyo and other prefectures are already taking steps against the spread, including increased vaccinations.

Fear is a factor, but a locked-down, spectator-less Games offers protection for both participants and the Japanese public. And it gives more than 8,000 athletes their once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in the Olympic Games. Supporting them in a responsible way is the definition of “athlete-centric.”

Rich Perelman

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