LANE ONE: No surprise as Japan bans foreign fans for Games, but that’s only where the questions begin

Will there be any fans at Tokyo 2020's Olympic Stadium for the Games? NOPE. (Photo: Tokyo 2020)

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“Today, the Five Parties (the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), the Organising Committee Tokyo 2020 and the Government of Japan) met virtually. During the meeting, the IOC and IPC were informed, as outlined below, about the conclusion of the Japanese parties not to allow entry into Japan for overseas spectators for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 due to the prevailing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Olympic and Paralympic tickets purchased by overseas residents from the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee will be refunded.”

Saturday’s statement from Tokyo 2020 was widely expected, but is still hard to take for the many thousands of Olympic fans, athlete family members and friends who want to be at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.

Many of the National Olympic Committees sell tickets and travel packages through so-called “Authorized Ticket Resellers.” Cartan Global, the highly-regarded ticket and travel coordinators for a host of Caribbean, Central and South American countries, posted a notice including:

“This is devastating news for everyone involved in the Olympic movement and can only imagine the disappointment for all our clients as well.

“Unfortunately, we have not received any specific details from Tokyo 2020 yet, but please know that we will work aggressively on your behalf to obtain all eligible and applicable refunds.”

U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee chief executive Sarah Hirshland posted a letter which included:

“The grief, frustration and disappointment being felt by all whose plans have been ruined is understandable. It is truly sad that the families, friends and fans from around the world, who help make the Games a global celebration, will not be able to attend. We can only try to imagine the weight of the responsibility felt by the hosts – along with the IOC and IPC – to offer the participants and the host community the safest possible environment, and we acknowledge that safety has to be the priority.”

But the fan issues are only the beginning.

The International Olympic Committee’s statement – in which it fully accepted the Japanese decision – immediately identified the new responsibilities now expected from its largest financial partners:

“[T]he IOC’s top priority was, is and remains to organise safe Olympic and Paralympic Games for everyone: all the participants and, of course, our gracious hosts, the Japanese people. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the side of our Japanese partners and friends, without any kind of reservation, to make the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 a great success.

“Together with our Rights-Holding Broadcasters, we will make every effort so that the fans from around the world will be able to experience the Olympic spirit. In this way, the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be the light at the end of the tunnel and a safe manifestation of peace, solidarity and the resilience of humankind in overcoming the pandemic.”

How the IOC, the television networks and the attending press and photographers cover the Games becomes more important than ever. But these groups are under the same pressure as fans, with their working options compressed due to the pandemic. Kyodo News reported:

“In a related development, the Japanese organizers have determined that people living overseas will not be allowed to volunteer at the games in principle as part of precautions against the spread of the COVID-19 disease, officials with knowledge of the plan said on condition of anonymity.

“About 10 percent of the roughly 80,000 games volunteers were foreign nationals, the organizing committee said before the games were pushed back one year ago.

“The government will consider ways to permit the entry of volunteers from abroad whose roles are difficult to be replaced by somebody living in Japan, such as those who are capable of speaking minority languages.”

Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshiro Muto said on Saturday of foreign nationals coming to the Games:

“If they are part of the operation of the games, if they are somewhat involved in the operation then there is still a possibility they may be able to enter into Japan. But solely as spectators for watching games — no, they will not be allowed to make an entry.”

That’s a potentially difficult issue for broadcasters, some support staff for press and photographers, and what about the pressure that will be applied to foreign officials for the International Federations and the National Olympic Committees?

For example, the significant working restrictions on press, photographers and television has already created enormous new pressures on National Olympic Committees to expand their support services for media reporting from home; now, how many NOC media officers will even be allowed to travel to Japan? Can viable local hires be substituted? How will they be trained?

Muto said that 600,000 tickets had been sold to foreign fans for the Games, compared to 4.45 million for Japanese residents. The actual number of spectators that can attend the Games – perhaps up to 50% of some venues – won’t be determined until April. The original total ticket inventory was expected to be 7.8 million.

The decision to prohibit foreign visitors for the Games was very much a response to the pressure on the Japanese government and the organizing committee from its public. Polls by media organizations in the country showed that because of the virus, as many as 80% of Japanese preferred to have the Games postponed again – not a possibility – or cancelled altogether.

Relatively speaking, the incidence of the coronavirus has been well controlled in Japan, but that has hardly stemmed the concern over the Games being a super-spreader event. Japan in total has logged 456,271 Covid-19 cases and 8,821 virus-related deaths. By comparison, in the U.S., Los Angeles County alone has suffered 1.21 million cases and 22,810 deaths.

The widely-publicized rejection of vaccination by some high-profile athletes – Jamaica’s four-time Olympic sprint medalist Yohan Blake said “I don’t want any vaccine, I’d rather miss the Olympics than take the vaccine, I am not taking it” – has not helped either, and it is clear that many Tokyo Olympians will not have been vaccinated.

The next step in the story will be the April release of the second versions of the “playbooks,” expected to have even more detailed and heavier protocols for testing of athletes, officials and support staff. The question of venue attendance will be settled and the organizers will have to determine whether additional tickets can be sold for some events, in seats that would have been filled by foreign fans.

Organizing an Olympic Games is extraordinary complex because of the scale of the operations. For the even-more-burdened television networks who will show the Games, as well as the Olympic Broadcast Services team that will provide the host signal, one of the aesthetic elements in every Games is to try and avoid showing empty seats within sight of the cameras, for the worldwide audience.

Now, how will that work? Will we really see a (now-familiar) campaign to allow fans – especially families of Olympians – to purchase photographic cut-outs of themselves to be placed at Olympic venues, at least within the primary camera shots?

Said Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto:

“[T]he Tokyo 2020 Games will be completely different to any previous Games. … We are currently working on specific plans to share support remotely from around the world and help bring people together in ways suited to our current times. Even if you are no longer able to come to Japan this summer, we hope very much that you will continue to support the Tokyo 2020 Games.”

Family members, get your best cheering photos ready!?!

Rich Perelman

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