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COVID-19 and the Olympic Games: How did Tokyo manage to stage the world's biggest sporting spectacle

The much talked about and awaited sporting frenzy, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, finally concluded on 8th of August with the passing of the baton to the next host city, Paris. Around 11,000 athletes from 200+ countries (and a refugee team) participated in the Games across 42 designated venues in Japan. A total of 339 medals were up for grabs. Expectations were really high from Tokyo which was hosting the summer Olympics for the second time (first in 1964). With all the uncertainty around the Games, Tokyo and its citizens somehow managed to pull off a successful global event. In this article we are going to analyze how the mega-event unfolded and what it took the organisers to stage the Tokyo Olympics.

Concerns and controversies leading to the Olympics

It all started with the postponement of the Games, which was a joint decision of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Never ever in its history has an Olympics been postponed until 2020. It has been cancelled thrice due to the World Wars (during 1916, 1940 & 1944). The COVID-19 pandemic generated fear and uncertainty and eventually led to postponement of the Games which were originally planned to be staged in 2020. Citizen protests erupted across the nation demanding that the Games be cancelled. In a poll conducted, 78 percent of Japanese respondents said that the Olympics should not go ahead due to safety concerns. Eventually, the organisers (Japan Olympic Committee) had to decide on going ahead without allowing local as well as international spectators. The IOC came out respecting Japan’s decisions with President Thomas Bach saying,“The first principle is safety. Every decision has to respect the principle of safety first.” This came as a huge blow in terms of revenue and for the local sponsors. Sponsors saw their ability to capitalise on their investment sharply limited. It’s estimated that the total loss will be nearly $15 billion for the organisers.

In the lead up to the preparation, Yoshiro Mori, the head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee resigned from his post after a lot of public and sponsor backlash against his inappropriate remarks on women. With the International Olympic Committee pushing and vouching for gender equality in administrative sections across its member associations, this incident was seen to be at odds with the spirit of the Olympics. Also, the Games were marred with rumors of bribery and corruption at various stages leading up to the start. Apart from these, there were other minor controversies too - illegal overworking of staff by construction companies, safety concerns for athletes due to heat, water quality and radiation, political controversies over Japan’s map and usage of the old “rising sun” flag.

COVID and it's protocols

With COVID-19 taking the limelight before the Games, the JOC in coordination with the IOC rolled out stringent COVID-19 safety protocols for anyone attending the Games. The extensive measures to curb the spread of coronavirus during the Games included testing for athletes and other participants. An athlete playbook was formulated, which everyone had to abide by diligently. Some of the rules implemented were -

  • COVID tests before travelling to Japan.

  • Athletes and anyone in close contact with them will be tested once daily in Japan.

  • Other participants will be tested daily for the first 3 days and regularly thereafter.

Other rules of participation included:

  • Participants may not use Japanese public transportation.

  • Participants must use vehicles designated for the Olympics.

  • Participants may only eat in designated areas where there are anti-coronavirus measures in place (e.g. catering facilities at Games venues and accommodation).

  • Minimal contact with residents of Japan and anyone who has already been in the country for 14 days or more.

  • Participants must stick to their activity plan and not engage in activities not listed.

Highlights of the Games

Tokyo 2020 was not just about the coming together of athletes to compete across sports, but was also a showcase of a nation’s ability to host the biggest sporting event by providing the best of infrastructure and showcasing sustainability. From medals being made from recycled mobile phones to promoting a gender balanced Games, the mission of Tokyo Olympics has been to help build a better, more sustainable world through sport. Let’s take a ride through some of the highlights that made the Games so unique and are a model for other countries who plan to host in the future.


To host a sustainable Games was one of the key targets of the organizers. Emphasis was placed in making sure the mega event hosted is environment-friendly through latest innovation and technology. Few of the sustainable initiatives were:

  • The medals awarded at the Games were made from metals salvaged from nearly 79,000 mobile phones and other electronics waste. The podiums on which the athletes received medals in the medal ceremony were made from recycled plastic waste.

  • 99% of all the goods procured for the Games will be recycled or reused

  • Athletes were provided with beds in the Games village that were made of cardboard which can be dismantled easily and recycled.

  • Much of the energy for Tokyo 2020 came from renewable sources, including solar arrays and wood biomass power. The electricity used by the Olympic Games village was generated with hydrogen using pure-hydrogen fuel cells.

  • The Olympic torch used for the torch relay journey and the Olympic cauldron were fueled by clean hydrogen.

  • A fleet of 500 hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) cars provided by Toyota was used as part of the Olympic vehicle fleet.

Pro-community Games

The lead up to the Games placed a lot of focus on gender equality. The Games did not disappoint either. The organisers made sure that inclusivity, which is another important pillar of IOC’s values, was implemented.

  • The Games were the first gender-balanced Olympic games with 49% female participation

  • The Games were also pro-LGBTQIA+ with a record number of 182 publicly out LGBTQIA+ athletes. The first permanent LGBTQIA+ centre was established in Tokyo, called Pride House Tokyo, to raise awareness about LGBTQIA issues through the creation of hospitality spaces, hosting of events, and production of diverse content. It is the first ever Pride House officially recognised by the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

  • After the feminist remark row and stepping down of Yoshiro Mori, the new President Hashimoto Seiko appointed 12 additional women to its Executive Board, increasing female representation in the board from 20 to 42%.

Technology at its best

Japan is known for its groundbreaking research and development in a variety of technological domains, and this was prominently on display. Few of innovations in display included:

  • Humanoid robots were in place at the Olympic Village to give directions to nearby accommodations and attractions. Transportation innovation with driver less taxis and shuttle buses were in place inside the Village for mobility.

  • To ward off sweltering heat faced by athletes, cooling measures were put in place which included solar-reflecting paint, wind-cooled buildings and wearable tech.

  • Automatic facial recognition systems were used for security screening at the Games, thus limiting the need for contact. The recognition systems could also detect any covid carriers.


Volunteers are crucial to successfully organize a mega-event. The Olympics has always relied on the coming together of passionate individuals from across the globe.

  • A total of 110,000 volunteers were originally selected from over 200,000 of those who had applied to be a part of the world’s biggest celebration of sports. The pandemic led to the cancellation of volunteers from outside Japan coupled with a lot of withdrawals over uncertainty and dissent. Finally, a total of 79,970 volunteers were involved in Tokyo 2020 - the oldest volunteer being 91 years and youngest being 19 years. Only 110 of them from overseas were allowed based on their sporting expertise.

It’s okay not to be okay

With the pandemic, the athlete's faced fear and uncertainty. It not just affected them physically but also emotionally.

  • Mental health took a front seat at the Olympics when some of the top athletes like Gymnast Simone Biles and BMX freestylist Nikita Ducarroz openly talked about the issue and their actions received open support from their teammates and supporters. It was indeed a positive sign to see athletes speaking about the topic and breaking the taboo around it.

The IOC amended its original Olympics motto - ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ to include the word ‘Together’, to showcase the need for solidarity during the unprecedented times of COVID-19. The motto epitomizes the power when individuals, communities and countries come together for a common goal. When all eyes fell on Japan for the Olympics, some of humanity's biggest challenges were played out through the theater of sport ultimately showcasing that we are stronger together.

Against the backdrop of backlash from its own concerned citizens, Japan and the organisers took a big decision to go ahead with the games. The Games went on, though, without spectators but with massive skepticism in a host country that views sports as a means of exhibiting the country's best attributes. The Olympics have amazed us with two weeks of spine-tingling sporting performances, passion and emotional moments of sportsmanship. The world has been united once again through the power of sport and showed that we are ‘Stronger Together.’

The world has been united once more through the power of sport!


About Simply Sport

Simply Sport is a sports policy research & development organization based out of India. Simply Sport’s vision is to promote sports as an effective tool for the development of the nation. It focuses on policy research, grassroots development and the use of technology in sports. To subscribe to Simply Sports Newsletters, Research & Articles, please write to You can follow Simply Sport on the Twitter handle @_SimplySport for more sports-related content.

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