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10 questions leading into the Tokyo Olympics

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Yes, the Tokyo Games are happening.

After a year’s postponement because of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite widespread opposition that has reached outrage level among some Japanese people and medical experts, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held this summer. The Olympics are July 23 to Aug. 8, while the Paralympics will be Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

There will be protestations about whether the Games should be held until the flame goes out. Followed by think pieces and analyses about what, if any, damage was done by welcoming thousands of visitors to Japan when the coronavirus pandemic has yet to be contained. But ignore the dark predictions in the coming days because, like it or not, the Games are going to be played.

Here’s a look at 10 questions surrounding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics:

Why are the Tokyo Games happening?

The Olympic rings sculpture, Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo Tower are pictured from Odaiba on April 6, 2021, in Tokyo.
The Olympic rings sculpture, Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo Tower are pictured from Odaiba on April 6, 2021, in Tokyo.

In a word? Money.

Oh, the International Olympic Committee will spout platitudes about the Tokyo Games providing a ray of light during these dark times and say it does not want to rob athletes of their dreams after they’ve spent years training and sacrificing. But it’s the billions of dollars at stake that are the real driving force for holding the Games.

The IOC gets most of its revenue – 73%, to be exact – from the broadcast rights to the Games; NBC alone paid $7.75 billion in 2014 for the U.S. rights to all media platforms – TV, internet and mobile – from 2021 through the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics. Another 18% of the IOC’s money comes from major sponsors.

Japan, meanwhile, has put the official cost of the Games at $15.4 billion, which includes an additional $2.8 billion because of the postponement. But many believe the actual price tag could be twice that.

So if the Games don’t happen, the IOC and Japanese organizers stand to lose a lot of money. A lot a lot.

The Japanese people, who are on the hook for the bulk of the costs for staging the Games, will be hard-pressed to recoup all that money. Organizers were counting on profits from ticket sales, but having no fans at events means the $800 million organizers had originally budgeted for ticket sales has disappeared.

But so long as the Games can be broadcast, the IOC will get its cash. And any money generated by the Games is better than none for Japanese organizers.

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Will the Games be a superspreader event?

After initial success in containing the coronavirus, Japan saw a surge in cases in the spring and again in recent weeks that overwhelmed hospitals and forced the government to reimpose states of emergency in several parts of the country, Tokyo included. Japan also lags well behind the United States and much of Europe in vaccination efforts, with only the elderly – about 30% of the population – expected to be fully vaccinated by the end of July.

The idea of bringing in thousands of athletes, media, staff and sponsors, not all of whom will be vaccinated, sparked concern and anger in Japan. But the IOC and Tokyo organizers insist the Games will be “safe and secure,” and are hanging this promise on their “playbooks,” an extensive list of protocols that everyone involved with the Olympics and Paralympics will have to follow.

Everyone will need multiple negative COVID-19 tests prior to and upon arriving in Japan, and athletes will be tested daily during the Games. There will be little, if any, contact with anyone outside the Olympic bubble, and athletes are essentially limited to the Olympic Village and their competition and training venues.

The IOC and Tokyo organizers also point to all the other sporting events that have been held across the world in the past 15 months that have not led to a spike in cases as reason for confidence they can pull off the Games.

“We have seen that this works,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in April. “There have been 340 world championships and World Cups being organized with the participation of far more than 40,000 athletes. None of these events have been a virus superspreader. They did not even have the benefit of the vaccine.”

Which brings us to the next question …

Will vaccines be required for those going to the Tokyo Games?

A sign describing COVID-19 countermeasures in the Main Press Centre before the Tokyo Games.
A sign describing COVID-19 countermeasures in the Main Press Centre before the Tokyo Games.

No – but the IOC is strongly encouraging them, and Bach has said more than 80% of the athletes will be vaccinated.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee isn’t making athletes be vaccinated, nor is it tracking who has been or will be. But the USOPC and the IOC have said they expect most of the team will be vaccinated – no small thing, given the U.S. will bring about 600 athletes to Tokyo, more than any other country.

Several other countries have prioritized vaccinating their athletes, including Germany, Australia, Britain and Brazil, which typically send some of the largest teams to the Games.

Will there be fans?

No. Tokyo organizers announced in March that foreign fans would not be allowed at the Games, saying it was too great a risk during a pandemic. About 600,000 tickets had been sold to fans outside of Japan.

But the bulk of Tokyo tickets, almost 4.5 million, were sold to people in Japan, and organizers had desperately hoped they could have some fans. They postponed a decision several times before announcing in late June that a limited number of fans would be allowed under tight restrictions. Two weeks later, with cases rising again, organizers backtracked, saying the best way to ensure a “safe and secure” Games was to prohibit all fans.

“We wanted a full stadium so community people could get involved in welcoming the athletes so we could have a full presentation of the power of sports," said Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020 and a seven-time Olympian. "However, now faced with COVID-19 we have no other choice but to hold the Games in a limited way."

What will the opening and closing ceremonies look like?

A great question, given the spectacles usually feature thousands of athletes gathered for several hours in the Olympic version of a mosh pit. Along with dozens of singing and cheering performers, and hundreds of volunteers to make sure the Broadway-like production all runs smoothly.

It would be hard to find a worse idea in the midst of a pandemic – and we all binged "Tiger King."

But we don’t know what Tokyo organizers are thinking because they haven’t said. The last version of the athletes’ playbook says “additional rules will apply” for the opening and closing ceremonies, but provides no specifics.

Hopefully they’ll be communicated by July 21.

Column continues below video:

How has the postponement impacted the Games?

Some athletes who would have been in Tokyo last summer won’t be this year because they got injured or lost a step. Some who used the year to get healthy or improve, or who are now age-eligible, had a window open they didn’t expect.

But the ramifications go beyond that.

The qualification process has been, to put it nicely, a mess. Sport federations have had to scramble to cobble together qualifying events whenever and wherever they could, and the uncertainty wreaked havoc on athletes’ training schedules as well as their psyches.

“I’m wondering what is going on with the Doha World Cup,” Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias, the reigning Olympic champion on still rings, said on Twitter on June 2, referring to the final event in a qualifying system where 10 Olympic spots were up for grabs.

He expressed confusion about the International Gymnastics Federation's competition schedule and how athletes would qualify for Tokyo. “Can anybody explain or answer what's going on with this weird situation?” Petrounias wrote.

A day later, gymnastics officials announced the Doha World Cup would be held June 23-26. That’s a month before the Games begin. Petrounias competed, and he qualified for Tokyo.

Some athletes also have raised concerns about whether there will be a level playing field in Tokyo, given anti-doping controls during the pandemic. Or, rather, the lack of them.

Amid lockdowns, rules for physical distancing and competitions not being held, the number of samples collected by anti-doping agencies around the world plummeted in 2020. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, there were 168,256 samples collected in 2020, compared with 305,881 in 2019.

While WADA said in June that numbers are getting closer to normal, there is fear some athletes might have taken advantage of the pandemic to gain an edge.

“That’s always a concern as an athlete,” said Emma Coburn, the U.S. bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Rio Olympics.

“I just appreciate I’m in a country that really is still testing their athletes a lot,” she added. “I can have confidence I’m training the right way, I’m competing the right way. … I can only hope that, globally, other athletes are the same.”

Speaking of doping, will Russia be in Tokyo?

Technically, no – not that anyone will realize that.

Russia was banned from the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics as punishment for tampering with drug-testing data. Which it was supposed to provide as proof it had cleaned up its act from its previous doping scandal, the one orchestrated to win the medal count in Sochi and prompted the “ban” for the Pyeongchang Games.

But just as at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the sanction has little teeth.

Russian athletes will compete as a “neutral” team – though Merriam-Webster would surely take umbrage with the IOC’s definition of that. They will be identified as ROC, which stands for the Russian Olympic Committee.

If this seems like a sham, well, it is.

Are there new sports?

Yes. Along with a couple old ones that have been revived.

Karate, sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing will make their Olympic debut in Tokyo, while softball and baseball are back on the program for the first time since the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Now climbing, skateboarding and surfing might not seem like a good fit with the stodgy Olympic world, but neither did snowboarding at one time. Which is the point. The IOC wants to engage younger fans, and it figures action sports will help it seem hip and cool.

More hip and cool than modern pentathlon and rhythmic gymnastics will, at least.

As the snowboarders quickly learned, the mainstream credibility the Olympics offer has some significant benefits for these once proud rebels of the sports world. Like increased visibility and popularity, which eventually translate into commercial opportunities and cash.

“I'm really excited for skateboarding to finally be part of the Olympics and really excited for skateboarding to be kind of recognized as, like, a real sport,” Heimana Reynolds said. “And have … skateboarders get the respect of being known as a real athlete instead of just a little skateboarding hobby they do on the side or delinquent kids do when they want to trespass and vandalize stuff.”

The IOC also added 15 events in existing sports. While 3x3 basketball and BMX freestyle are on the list, most of the new events are mixed-gender relays or events – the mixed 4x400 relay in track, for example – as part of the IOC’s gender equity effort. The IOC says almost 49% of the athletes in Tokyo will be women, which would make these the first gender-equal Games.

With Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt on their couches, who will be Tokyo’s big star?

Simone Biles is poised to be the face of the Tokyo Games.
Simone Biles is poised to be the face of the Tokyo Games.

Get ready for the Simone Show.

Simone Biles won five medals, four of them gold, at the Rio Games, and she’s only gotten better since then. She won the last two world titles by commanding margins, and is doing skills so difficult few men even attempt them. She is favored to be the first woman to repeat as all-around champion since Vera Caslavska in 1968 and could leave Tokyo with five gold medals, something no American woman has done.

But Biles’ appeal goes beyond the floor.

She has embraced her greatness in the way Serena Williams and the U.S. women’s soccer team have, acknowledging she’s the best – her leotards are adorned with a rhinestone goat – and refusing to apologize for it. She recognizes the influence she has, and uses it to hold USA Gymnastics and the USOPC accountable for the failures that allowed Larry Nassar to prey on hundreds of girls and young women – herself included.

She’s also got an infectious laugh and smile, so it’s no wonder NBC and other big sponsors were quick to anoint her as the face of the Tokyo Games.

“I want to take the pressure off myself and say it’s hopefully going to be shared with (swimmer) Katie Ledecky,” Biles told USA TODAY Sports in April, laughing.

“It’s definitely different,” she said, turning more serious. “It's a huge expectation, but it's kind of nice to have all the other Olympians kind of rooting for me and cheering for me, and having the world as well. But it does add a lot of pressure. I’ll just have to stay focused and do what we are going to do.”

Ledecky is undertaking a Phelps-like challenge for Tokyo, hoping to race in the 200-, 400-, 800- and the newly added 1,500-meter freestyle, as well as the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Should she win each race, it would give her 10 career gold medals, one more than Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record for a female Olympian.

Only Phelps has more Olympic golds, with 23.

While Phelps won’t be adding to his medal count in Tokyo, you’ll still hear his name a lot. Caeleb Dressel tied Phelps’ record with seven golds at the 2017 world championships. In Tokyo, Dressel is expected to be a medal contender in six events.

If you don’t already know Carissa Moore, you will soon. She’s the four-time world champion in surfing, and her sport will be contested in what will surely be the Games’ most picturesque setting.

Will there be athlete protests during the Games?

Yes, despite the IOC’s efforts to head them off.

The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer last year sparked a long-overdue recognition of the systemic racism in this country and around the globe.

Athletes were often at the forefront of this social justice movement, and it forced USOPC leaders to examine why this was so personal to so many, and what their own responses to previous demonstrations said about the organization. Tommie Smith and John Carlos might be icons in the Olympic movement now, but they were personas non grata to U.S. officials for decades after they raised their fists on the medals podium at the 1968 Olympics.

Just two years ago, the USOPC put hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden on probation after they protested for racial justice on the medals stand at the Pan American Games.

In December, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland announced the organization would not punish those who demonstrated at the Tokyo Olympics, even if protests occurred during competition or on the medals stand.

“Team USA athletes serve as a beacon of inspiration and unity globally, and their voices have and will be a force for good and progress in our society," Hirshland wrote in a letter to athletes.

The decision puts American athletes at odds with the IOC and its Rule 50, which has long prohibited protests within the field of play. Last year the IOC said kneeling and hand gestures are not allowed – seen as a direct warning to American athletes.

No one has said yet what the sanctions would be for athletes who violate Rule 50.

And make no mistake, there will be athletes who will. And they won’t just be American.

England’s men’s soccer team knelt before games throughout the European championship to call attention to racism. Australian and British swimmers refused to share the podium at the 2019 world championships with China’s Sun Yang, who was facing a lifetime ban for doping.

Sun’s appeal of his eight-year ban, imposed after he smashed a vial of his blood with a hammer, was reduced to four years in June, but he will miss the Tokyo Games.

“I don't think you can ban an athlete for protesting and, if they do, all hell would break loose and it could go south and sour very quickly,” British sprinter Adam Gemili said in May.

"The Olympics is not a place to be political, it's a place for sport and to bring the whole world together. But the whole Black Lives Matter movement is more than political,” Gemili added. “It's about being a good human, and equal rights for everyone is not something which should be turned away so easily like they're doing."

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympics: 10 questions leading into the Tokyo Games