“In pursuit of one moment” – the unspoken toll of the Tokyo Olympics

The fate of the Tokyo Olympics walks a fine line between fears of a global super spreader and a career ending blow for an entire generation of young athletes already out in the cold, writes David Allen.

Image: David Allen

Anton Down-Jenkins is the first diver to represent New Zealand at an Olympic level since 1984.

After a strong showing in the 3m springboard event at the FINA World Diving Cup in Tokyo early in May, the 21-year-old Kiwi is now ranked in the global top ten in his sport.

His selection for the New Zealand Olympic team shines a light on a sport often unnoticed outside powerhouse Olympic nations and represents close to a decade of hard work.

“It just shows that if you want something and you work hard enough at it you can make it happen,” said Anton.

The young athlete was impressed with the way the FINA Cup was run amidst a serious COVID outbreak and despite early fears it could lead to a super spreader event.

“I never felt I was unsafe or at risk, and it was smooth sailing,” he said.

Having qualified, he’s back in the pool training six days a week for an event that may not happen.

Half a world away, Olympic host nation Japan is a country on edge.

Ten prefectures are in a state of emergency; municipal authorities in Tokyo and Osaka have just sought to extend theirs until June 20.

The seven-day average case numbers for the capital are hovering around 600 while the national vaccine rollout is slow enough to rival Australia’s.

It’s bad news for a population of 126 million, 28 per cent of whom are over the age of 65.

But the Tokyo Olympics have been a national hot button issue since long before COVID-19 entered the picture, with plans for a high-tech main stadium scuppered in 2015 while the rushed development of multiple casinos faced a public backlash.

Tokyo was announced as host city just four months after the Fukushima disaster.

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it would be a “tremendous opportunity for Tokyo and for Japan to shine at the very centre of the world stage.”

Their postponement in March 2020 as the global pandemic escalated made Tokyo the first city to have to cancel the Olympics twice.

“When the Olympics were delayed last year, the idea was to hold them as proof that the world has defeated the virus, said former head of the Japanese Self Defence Forces Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano.

“The results speak for themselves. People are dying who didn’t have to,” he said.

The only division of opinion in Japan appears to be between citizen and government.

Recent surveys show 80 per cent of the Japanese people would prefer the games to be cancelled permanently.

The Tokyo Medical Association, representing 6,000 local doctors, has called for the games to be cancelled while Tokyo residents have taken to the streets in peaceful protest marches through May.

Prime Minister Suga has said he will “never put the Olympics first”.

With less than 60 days till the opening ceremony and an election in October, the government is fast running out of time to save political face.

The International Olympic Committee have made it clear they want the games to go ahead if it can be done safely, and they believe it can.

Japan’s most recent COVID surge shows no sign of abating as the national vaccine rollout stalls amidst ongoing systemic failures in the public health sector. Image: David Allen

International Olympic Committee member and Canadian ex-swimming champion Dick Pound recently told CNN so far as the planners and organisers are concerned “cancelling the games is essentially off the table”.

“All the indications are that a bubble can be created and maintained and daily, or whatever the frequency of tests will be, will identify any indications that there may be some people having the virus that are there. They’ll be put into isolation right away,” said Mr Pound.

IOC Chairman Thomas Bach has said the organisation will pay for extra medical personnel for all teams in the athlete’s village while 80 per cent of athletes are expected to arrive fully vaccinated.

Discussion of those in favour of the progression of the games has slanted towards the economic impact caused by their loss.

The Japanese government has allegedly invested US$35 billion or ¥3.8 trillion, making the Tokyo games the most expensive in history by far.

The government disputes the figure, saying most of it belongs to un-associated infrastructure.

With spectator attendance limits dropped to 80,000 and more cuts seemingly inevitable, global sponsors and local business are already expecting to take a loss.

The impact on athletes of a potential cancellation has mostly been lost as the storm of controversy howls on in the international news cycle.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has defended the IOC’s attempts to keep the games afloat.

“Seventy per cent of competitors who are chasing an Olympic slot are only going to have one chance at this,” said Mr Coe.

The average age of Olympic medallists is 25 years; for sports like gymnastics and swimming, it’s younger still.

For athletes, the games are an opportunity to benefit financially from global exposure, an industrial necessity decimated by the pandemic and ongoing cancelations of major sporting events.

The Australian Sports Federation recently released a report showing since the beginning of the pandemic, most international athletes reported earning less than AU$23,000 a year.

“I can see no good reason why you wouldn’t want to do everything you possibly can to make sure that you’re not discarding a generation of athletes who have spent over half their young lives in pursuit of this one moment,” said Mr Coe.

“The lifeline for pretty much every international [sporting] federation is Olympic revenue and Olympic broadcast money, and there are some that would be in real crisis if we don’t have a games.”

Anton Down-Jenkins remains hopeful he will be able to make history and represent New Zealand in 2021.

Not only his diving career, but the future of a national industry rests on his representation at the worlds biggest sporting event.

“I’m super proud to represent New Zealand, we don’t have as much resource in diving as some of the big powerhouse nations and so that just makes me even more thrilled with this achievement.”

“It’s so awesome to know that my hard work has paid off,” he said.

Time will tell if Anton Down-Jenkins gets his moment in the pool, or if he will join generations of athletes whose careers will be re-written by COVID-19.

This article is one of three for the final assessment of Journalism Reporting and Writing at RMIT.