The president of the International Olympic Committee has warned athletes against political protests at the upcoming Tokyo games, asking them to avoid “divisive” statements that could overshadow the world’s largest sporting event.
Thomas Bach told the Financial Times that the games, which will start next Friday, would be “by far the most complex and difficult of all time”, as they were delayed a year due to the pandemic and will only be carried out with strict restrictions related to coronavirus.
But the IOC chief, a former Olympic fencing champion from Germany, also wants to avoid controversy, saying that he would not support the activism of athletes during the games’ highlights.
“The podium and the medal ceremonies are not done. . . for a political or other demonstration, ”Bach said. “They are made to honor athletes and medal winners for athletic achievement and not for their [views]. “
For the past year, amid a global reckoning over racial and social injustice, athletes have been at the forefront of protest movements.
European footballers and American basketball players have “knelt” before games in a gesture against racism. Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis star who Tokyo organizers hope to portray as the global face of the games, has also been an outspoken critic of police brutality.
In recent weeks, the IOC has modified its rules to allow for some dissent, such as at press conferences and on social media. But protests are still prohibited on the field of play, particularly on the medal podiums where one of the most famous athlete protests of all time took place: the raised fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 1968 games.
“The mission is to have the whole world united in one place and peacefully competing with each other,” Bach said. “This would never be achieved if the games [became] divisive “.
Olympic officials say privately that reducing dissent will be impossible to enforce. Such acts have already taken place in the run-up to Tokyo, such as during the United States Olympic Trials last month when hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned her back on the United States flag and draped a T-shirt over her head that It said “Activist athlete. “
This week, the British women’s soccer team said they would kneel before games at the Olympics.
Political protests are just one of the tough problems organizers face. The event is deeply unpopular with Tokyo citizens, according to recent polls. There has been public outrage over the apparent cases in which Olympic officials violated the rules for wearing masks in a city in a state of emergency for the Games.
About 11,000 Olympians and 4,400 Paralympians will travel to the Japanese capital in the coming weeks, along with 41,000 coaches, judges and other officials. They will be kept in a “bubble” away from the city public. Foreign visitors are banned and the action will take place without spectators in Tokyo’s expensively built stadiums.
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Bach defended the decision to continue the games with such restrictions, saying it would be a “tremendous showcase for Japan” for the billions who watch it on television, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of those who compete.
He rejected the idea that the games were held to protect streaming and sponsorship revenue, which amounted to $ 5.7 billion in the four years leading up to the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
The IOC president said it would have been financially prudent to cancel the games and rely on their insurance policies against the pandemic, but “we would not abandon the athletes.”
In recent weeks, other major sporting events, such as the European soccer championships, the Wimbledon tennis tournament, and even baseball games in Japan, have been played in front of huge crowds.
Bach admitted that he was “not happy” that the Japanese authorities decided to ban spectators, but added: “We support this decision … because we believe it is a responsible decision to ensure a safe Olympics.” The event consists of 28 different sports that take place in 17 days throughout Japan.
To help reduce the chances of a coronavirus outbreak, the IOC reached agreements with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Chinese government to ensure that around 85 percent of athletes, coaches and team officials are vaccinated prior to their arrival at Tokyo Organizers also plan to run hundreds of thousands of daily Covid-19 tests on athletes.
Bach said there was a complex plan that could mean the awarding of multiple medals in an event interrupted by positive tests. In the event that an athlete was unable to compete in a final after testing positive or was forced to isolate himself, he would receive the lowest possible rank in that final.
In combat sports like boxing and karate, that could mean that two athletes receive a silver medal: one for the person who qualified for the finals but was unable to compete, and the other for the athlete who actually lost the fight for the finals. gold medal. This “would do justice to [both] athletes as one must be isolated, ”he said.