15,000 athletes will attempt to beat a pandemic as well as their rivals at the delayed Olympic and Paralympic Games. By Paul Thomas.
Certainty around major international sporting events is a thing of the past (and, hopefully, the not-too-distant future) but it seems the postponed 2020 Olympic Games will officially begin in Tokyo on July 23.
The stakes are high. As well as the emotions of athletes who have trained for years for perhaps their only opportunity to be an Olympian, there's evident resistance to the notion that combating Covid-19 requires us to pull back from doing what comes naturally – the mindset that "I'm not going to be pushed around by a goddamn virus."
And there's the bottom line: Japan has officially sunk US$15.4 billion into staging the games, although government audits indicate the true outlay is significantly higher. And if the games don't go ahead, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stands to lose US$3-4 billion in broadcasting revenues.
Japan has coped with the pandemic relatively well: it has a cumulative infection rate of 6400 per million people and around 18,400 active cases. To put that in perspective, the UK, with just over half Japan's population, has a cumulative infection rate of 72,500 per million and about 440,000 active cases.
But in Japan, as elsewhere, the Delta variant is causing alarm. With more than 15,000 athletes taking part in the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics, plus the presence of thousands of officials, dignitaries, sponsors and media, there are understandable fears that the great sporting festival and celebration of shared humanity could become a super-spreader event. International fans have been told to stay away and the unpalatable measure of forbidding the Japanese people from attending the games they've paid for is now on the table.
Incidentally, the Delta variant isn't the only thing preoccupying those preparing for worst-case scenarios. Major earthquakes hit the greater Tokyo area about once a generation. The last one was in 1988.
And although we have a tendency to assume threats that don't eventuate weren't real to begin with, in 2016 there were fears that the Zika virus epidemic, which began in Brazil, would sweep through athletes and fans at the Rio de Janeiro Games. Indeed, Zika was just one of several potential disasters, but Rio 2016 turned out to be all right on the night.
For the New Zealand team, Rio is a hard act to follow. The tally of 18 medals – four gold, nine silver and five bronze – beat the previous record of 13 set in Seoul in 1988 and equalled in London in 2012. Although it's highly likely that new stars will emerge – as pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney did in Rio – much of the attention will be on already big names, especially those for whom this will probably be their Olympic swansong.
Shot-putter Dame Valerie Adams, a 36-year-old who has had two children since Rio, will be competing in her fifth Olympics. In Beijing in 2008, she won New Zealand's first track and field gold medal since John Walker in the 1500m at Montreal in 1976. That was the springboard for an extraordinary career: four world championships, four world indoor titles, another Olympic gold in 2012, silver in 2016 and the accolade of world athlete of the year in 2014. Adams heads to Tokyo in decent form, having won at the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm earlier this month.
Hamish Bond, who teamed up with Eric Murray to win gold in 2012 and 2016 during a seven-year unbeaten run in the men's coxless pair, is in the men's rowing eight, whose medal prospects are regarded as dimmer than those of the women's eight. He will, however, be joint flag bearer at the opening ceremony with Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini. The Black Ferns will be looking to go one better than their silver medal placing in 2016; their phenomenal record since then must make them warm favourites.
Fresh from their America's Cup heroics, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke will attempt to defend their 49er title. (They won silver in 2012.) If their track record is any guide, it should be a formality: they were the first sailors to win six 49er world championships and they won all 28 regattas between the 2012 and 2016 games. In Rio, they won gold with two races to spare and by an overall margin of 43 points, the most in any sailing class at the Olympics since 1968, when the modern scoring system was adopted.
Sprint canoeist Lisa Carrington is yet another of the all-time greats who, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "bestride their disciplines like a colossus". Having won seven successive K1-200m world titles and being unbeaten in that event for more than a decade, she's poised to become the first New Zealander to win three successive gold medals in the same event.
(That opportunity was denied 42-year-old Mahé Drysdale, who missed out on selection to Jordan Parry, 17 years his junior, in the men's single scull.) 1500m runner Nick Willis, another veteran medallist, will take part in his fifth Olympics after two higher ranked runners opted to compete over different distances.)
The only concern with Carrington is that she may spread herself too thin: as well as the K1-200m, she's planning to compete in the K1-500, in which she came third in Rio, the K2-500 – she and Caitlin Regal won this event at the 2017 world championships – and the K4-500m. The 32-year-old, who has hinted at post-games retirement, insists she has been planning this ambitious campaign for several years and preparing accordingly.
Golfer Lydia Ko won silver in Rio, no surprise given her then standing in the women's game. After some lean years, the former world No 1 has timed her run well, with one tournament win and five other top-10 finishes this season. Having dropped as low as 55th in the world golf rankings she's now back in the top 10.
Shot-putter Tom Walsh won bronze in 2016 and will be up against the two Americans who finished ahead of him. At the US Olympic trials, 2016 gold medallist Ryan Crouser broke compatriot Randy Barnes' world record that had stood for 31 years. This achievement has been hailed, by Crouser among others, for restoring a "clean" world record. Less than three months after setting the record, Barnes was banned for 27 months for anabolic steroid use. He returned to win gold at the 1996 Atlanta games but was banned for life in 1998 for taking an over-the-counter supplement.
Kiwi Olympians seeking pure inspiration need look no further than the host city: in 1964, Tokyo was the setting for our greatest Olympic, if not greatest sporting, achievement – Sir Peter Snell doing the 800m/1500m double, a feat that hadn't been achieved since 1920 and hasn't been matched by a male athlete since. l
Weight of the world
No Kiwi participant in Tokyo will be more under the spotlight – interrogation lamp might be more accurate – than weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the first transgender athlete to compete in an Olympics.
The issue of athletes who have transitioned from male to female competing as women, particularly in power events such as weightlifting, is one of the most contentious – perhaps intractable – in contemporary society, let alone sport.
"Gender transition changes some but not all biological factors that may contribute to performance differences that may exist between males and females," says American academic Jami Taylor, co-author of The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights. "Regardless of that, societal averages don't compete; individuals do. And their circumstances vary. Individuals also have rights."
Its complexity – and the emotions it arouses – has made for strange bedfellows: conservative culture-war sabre-rattlers and some feminists figuratively stand shoulder to shoulder in their opposition to transgender athletes competing as women, while disagreeing about practically everything else.
The first thing to be said – and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said it – is that Hubbard, who's 43 and transitioned in 2012, met the International Olympic Committee's eligibility criteria. That the criteria have been challenged by some scientists and are under constant review as more medical and scientific data emerges are discussions for another time: the rules that matter are the rules that apply on the given day.
Opponents of transgender athletes competing as women are prone to sweeping assertions such as "it will kill women's sport" and "transgender athletes will take over". These statements seem absurdly alarmist, assuming a far larger transgender community than actually exists or that there are men out there with such skewed priorities they'll change gender for the sole purpose of becoming sports stars.
In fact, transgender athletes have been able to compete at the Olympics since 2004; none have done so until now. Trans athletes have been competing for decades: few have reached great heights and there's little evidence that their presence has driven women out of the particular sport.
After US-based Canadian academic Rachel McKinnon, who transitioned in her late twenties, won a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) masters world championship in the women's 35-44 age category in 2018, third place-getter Jen Wagner-Assali tweeted that "it's definitely NOT fair". She added, "Just because it's a CURRENT UCI rule doesn't make it fair or right." McKinnon, who now calls herself Veronica Ivy, responded that Wagner-Assali had beaten her in 10 of the 12 previous races in which they'd competed.
Ivy, a sharp-elbowed activist who was once suspended from Twitter for overstepping boundaries, claimed that after her win she received 100,000 messages at a hate-support ratio of 3000 to one. Very few of the haters evinced even a passing interest in women's sport, she said – they hated transgenderism and gender transition, full stop.
One hopes that, for Hubbard, living her Olympic dream doesn't turn out to be a case of be careful what you wish for. It seems inevitable that she will be the subject of intense media curiosity at best, unpleasant media scrutiny at worst. Practitioners of the latter will no doubt scour the Olympic Village for female competitors willing to publicly bemoan Hubbard's participation.
Taylor believes Hubbard is in a "no-win situation", in that winning a medal would, in some eyes, prove the anti brigade's point. A backlash is already under way – in the past year, 30 US states have passed laws requiring women and girls to compete in the gender category on their birth certificates. Taylor, accordingly, "would not be shocked if the IOC and other sporting bodies end up tightening their policies".