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The IOC insists there’s ‘no Plan B’ and that the Tokyo Olympics will go on. What does that mean for athletes?

The clocks are still ticking toward July 23 in Japan, when the already-delayed Olympic Games remain scheduled to be held.Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

Tokyo has been under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus for three weeks. Vaccines aren’t expected to be available there until the end of next month. More than 80 percent of Japanese people polled earlier this month believed that the Summer Olympics either should be rescheduled again or scrubbed. Yet the IOC still is counting on the Games of the XXXIInd Olympiad opening on July 23. That was president Thomas Bach’s assurance to the full membership and the 200-plus national Olympic committees in teleconferences last week.

Bach, who insists that there is “no reason whatsoever” why the Games won’t go on as planned, said there is “no Plan B.” The Olympics only have been canceled during world wars. Last year’s unprecedented postponement added $700 million to the estimated $25 billion that the Japanese government and the Tokyo organizers spent on construction and preparations.


Delaying the Games for another year is out of the question, the IOC said.

“The Japanese said they could hold this up in the air for no longer than a year,” said Dick Pound, the IOC’s most senior member. “I think everyone is pretty well agreed that it’s got to be 2021 or it’s not going to happen.”

So the world’s athletes, who’ve been in suspended animation since the Games were postponed last March, have become increasingly anxious as the virus rages unchecked in many countries, with 100 million positive cases and more than two million dead.

“I’m trying hard not to think about all the news stories coming out — this might happen, that might happen,” said Sherborn fencer Eli Dershwitz, who qualified for the US team just before last season was terminated. “My mind-set is, I have to trick myself into thinking the Games are 100 percent happening.”

Last week’s story in the Times of London, quoting an unnamed senior member of Japan’s ruling coalition saying that the government privately had concluded that the Games would have to be called off, produced shock waves even though the report was denied by the government.


“I was up all night refreshing Twitter, looking for the next news article,” said Dershwitz, who hasn’t competed since last March. “I got to bed around 4 or 5 a.m., but that was a tough night. It definitely takes its toll mentally.”

For thousands of Olympic hopefuls, the more immediate concern is when and how they’ll be able to qualify. The US boxers named a year ago to the 13 men’s and women’s spots, including Lynn lightweight and world medalist Rashida Ellis, still have to earn their places at the May hemispheric qualifying tournament in Argentina that was supposed to take place 10 months ago.

The extended limbo had some of them pondering whether or not they should turn pro instead.

“They were weighing their odds, but they were also looking at professional boxing and there wasn’t much going on there either,” said USA Boxing executive director Mike McAtee. “They know that being an Olympian will increase their value.”

While the US women’s soccer team picked up their Tokyo tickets last February, the men still have to earn theirs in March in Mexico, with a decidedly different under-23 roster than they had last year.

“There are quite a few players who weren’t on our radar then that now are very much a part of the consideration for the team,” said coach Jason Kreis. “On the other side, we had players who now have moved into European clubs and we feel we have much less opportunity to get them because the clubs don’t have to release them.”


The Olympic rings are displayed in Tokyo. But for how much longer?Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The 11,000 competitors who make it to Tokyo will encounter an Olympic atmosphere unlike any other in history. They’ll be told to arrive no earlier than five days before their events and depart within 48 hours after competing. They’ll be tested frequently for COVID-19 and live in a five-ringed bubble, shuttling between the residential village and their venues, and they’ll be discouraged from venturing into the city for sightseeing.

And depending upon the state of the virus this summer, the athletes may well perform without spectators as their international winter counterparts are doing this season.

“I don’t want to sound like a heretic,” said Pound. “Fans with bums in seats are nice to have, but they’re not must-haves.”

The Olympics have become a televised planetary showcase. More than 3.5 billion people watched the 2016 Games in Rio, five times as many as tuned in when Tokyo held the first globally broadcast Games in 1964. As the IOC sees it, the must-haves are the athletes and TV. Everything else is expendable.

“After what will be 18 months of existential uncertainty, we need some good news,” said Pound. “This will be a great statement of persistence and resolve, provided it can be done safely.”