While we won’t catch the 2021 Summer Olympics for another ten months, here are nine questions and storylines to keep your eye on as we approach the games:
1. Why are the Olympics in 2021?
Usually, the Summer Olympics occur every four years, a tradition since the creation of the modern games in 1896. The 2020 Olympics would have been the 32nd installment of the summer games. Instead, Covid-19 instantly shut down most major sports in March. With several countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, all pulling their athletes from the games, the International Olympic Committee worked with Japan — the host nation — to postpone the games to the summer of 2021. This is the first time the games have been moved or canceled since World War II. According to an estimation by Katsuhiro Miyamoto of Kansai University, the postponement has already cost the Japanese government $5.8 billion. With a potentially even greater loss to the Japanese government, sponsors, fans and athletes looming, the 2021 games need to run.
2. Will the Olympics even happen in 2021 or could they be canceled?
As of right now, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, is planning to open the Summer Olympics on July 232021 in Tokyo. There is quite a bit of time until then, and as we all know, a lot can happen in 10 months. The IOC has been adamant that they want all 339 Olympic events to happen. However, in order to achieve such a goal, the committee would need to ensure that the event has added safety requirements similar to the NBA, thus establishing a bubble for the athletes and coaches in the Olympic Village. Many professional sports leagues around the world, like the Premier League in the U.K., have restarted since shutting down in March and have been successful in limiting the cases of coronavirus for their players. By instituting mandatory tests, quarantines, masks and contact tracing, there can be reasonable safety measures to protect the athletes and Olympic staff. The possibility for a Covid-19 vaccine is still there and, should it arrive before July, could shore up any doubts of whether the games will run.
3. Will there be fans at the games?
The IOC is currently at a critical stage in determining whether there is a safe and responsible way to bring fans to the Olympics. Right now, in Japan, the government is trying out its new fan safety protocols and Covid-19 countermeasures in their professional baseball stadiums. The Tokyo Dome just took in 19,000 fans for a game and demonstrated many of these new protocols such as no-shouting cheering, the spacing of seats, collecting fan contact information and easily accessible disinfectant. So far, there have been no confirmed cases. It is paramount for these measures to work for fans to be allowed to the games in July.
4. How will Covid-19 affect athletic performance?
Training to be an Olympic athlete is exceptionally difficult, and taking just a few days off could be very costly for future performance. Even more, losing several months of training and access to the world-class facilities and coaching these athletes are accustomed to could be devastating. Many of the top Olympic training sites and programs have had to shut down for a period of time due to the pandemic. Not to mention, many athletes have or will test positive for the coronavirus before the next Olympic Games. While these athletes are in great physical condition to overcome the virus, there could be long term effects from contracting Covid-19 that have yet to be discovered. Perhaps the delay in the games will be a positive effect, as some athletes may end up with a whole extra year to prepare for the summer of 2021. There could end up being a wide spectrum of results from the games, as some athletes may break records while others will struggle just to put up an average performance.
5. What about qualification for the games?
The IOC announced when they postponed the games that all athletes who qualified for the 2020 games were automatically allowed to participate in 2021. But, it does beg the question of whether there should be another round of qualifying before 2021. There may be some athletes who have improved that may be in a position to compete for the podium next summer. In some sports, the Olympic Trials have yet to happen and have also been delayed to 2021. For example, the U.S. Track and Field Team had yet to host their team trials for the 2020 games before the pandemic. They have already scheduled qualifying runs for June of 2021. Injuries should also be considered, as some athletes were hurt and missed out on qualifying for 2020. With an extra year to recover, they may be healthy enough to compete in 2021. Should they be given the chance? Many of these questions may have to be answered by the athletes’ respected national teams before next July.
6. Is the Olympic Torch still aflame without the games being played?
Do not fear, the eternal flame is still ablaze. The torch relay had to be postponed due to Covid-19, but the flame is currently being kept safe in Tokyo in a special lantern that will continually burn until the torch relay resumes in Naraha, Fukushima in March 2021. From there, it will travel around Japan until it is brought to Tokyo for the Opening Ceremony on July 23.
7. Are there any new events coming in 2021?
Yes. There are five new sports with many new events coming in 2021. Baseball and softball return to the Summer Olympics having last been played in 2008. Karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing will all make their Olympic debuts in 2021. According to the IOC, “The inclusion of the new sports will add 18 events and 474 athletes, with equal numbers of women and men for all sports except baseball and softball, which will have the same number of teams but different player totals.” These new additions are sure to target a younger demographic of fans and should stir up interest in these sports.
8. Can the Olympics survive without Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt?
Arguably the greatest Olympic swimmer and sprinter of all time — Phelps and Bolt, respectively — have both retired since the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. The American swimmer Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold. Let’s not forget the 39 world records Phelps set over his career, many of which came in an Olympic pool. As for the Jamaican runner, Bolt, he never lost an Olympic race from 2008 to 2016 winning 8 gold medals in the 100 and 200-meter individual and relay races. Who could forget Bolt celebrating before he crossed the line in the 2008 100-meter final and still setting an Olympic Record time? With an electric name and speed, Bolt dominated from 2008 to 2016, setting ]world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. Phelps and Bolt walked away in 2016 leaving massive shoes to fill on the Olympic stage. Their charisma and excellence may be irreplaceable, and the Olympics may not be as popular without them.
9. With Phelps and Bolt gone, which athletes will take on the spotlight in 2021?
The answer: female superstars. Bolt and Phelps fame kept many athletes from shining the brightest at the Olympics, but with them out of the way, there is a wave of powerful women ready to take the Olympic throne. To start, there is Simone Biles. Biles took the 2016 Olympics by storm, winning four gold medals, setting the record for a female gymnast in a single games. She has dominated all events in her sport, taking home 19 gold medals at the World Championships over her career, and now she will look to defend her titles in her final Olympics in 2021. In women’s swimming, Katie Ledecky seems primed for a Phelps-like run as she enters the prime of her career at age 23. With five Olympic golds, 15 World Championships and 14 broken world records, Ledecky has already established herself as the best female distance swimmer on the planet. Now, another powerful performance in 2021 could elevate her from the best right now to perhaps the greatest ever. Finally, we turn to the American Women’s National Soccer team and their captain, Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe has already shown herself to be a great player and leader on the pitch in helping her team win the World Cup in 2019 as well as the FIFA Player of the Year award. She is outspoken on a number of political and social issues, most prominently women’s and LGBTQ rights; Another strong performance in the 2021 Olympics would grant her the large platform she thrives in both on and off the field. This could give her the chance to not just be one of the world’s most famous women’s soccer players, but one of the most well-known athletes on the planet.
The Olympics may be ten months away, but it’s never too early to feel a tingle of excitement for one of the great worldwide events humanity gets to share together, in its year of unprecedented experiment.