‘Tokyo 2020 showed it is possible to keep a pandemic at bay’

09 Aug 2022
IOC News Tokyo 2020

Following yesterday’s one-year anniversary of the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Dr Brian McCloskey reflects on how the Games paved the way for other major events to be organised safely during the pandemic.

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Responsibility can be challenging. Just one year ago, I was heading the Independent Expert Panel of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to work alongside the Japanese authorities and design together the COVID-19 countermeasures for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. We were in the middle of the pandemic, vaccination was not yet available across the globe, and we expected 11,300 athletes and tens of thousands of participants to come to Japan.

“The Olympics could be a COVID-19 'super-evolutionary event’”, “Experts say Olympics unprepared for COVID-19”, “Could the Tokyo Games lead to an 'Olympic' variant?” were global headlines ahead of the Games. As Chair of the Independent Expert Panel, I was responsible for providing the right advice to the IOC and the organisers of the Games in order to create a safe and secure event. When you read such headlines, you can clearly have doubts and become afraid for a minute, asking yourself “what if” questions. And yes, there were short moments of this, but they were only brief – because we believed in our planning. Also, we had a great partner in this task in Japan, with their experience of keeping COVID-19 cases at numbers below most of the rest of the world without resorting to lockdowns.

Today we can say: what Tokyo 2020 did, in a historic way, was to show that the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO) was right. By following basic public health measures, and by layering a testing programme on top, we have shown that it is possible to keep a pandemic at bay.

As the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 reach their one-year anniversary and we are in our third summer grappling with COVID-19, we can clearly see the impact these Games had in paving the way. Major events, including the Commonwealth Games, are a regular feature in the calendar again, and no longer a matter of global concern.

COVID-19 countermeasures 2021 Getty Images

With only 33 positive cases among the 11,300 athletes, and 464 overall among tens of thousands of accredited stakeholders, the Olympic Games proved to be safe for both participants and the population of Japan. The results also showed that, despite the criticisms expressed before the Games, Tokyo 2020 did not lead to a spreading event, let alone a super -spreading event. For one reason: everyone involved did their job diligently. This was confirmed by the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, which achieved similar results six months later, even with the more infectious Omicron variant.

Of course, I could understand there was discomfort before the Tokyo Games. But what was more difficult to understand were some experts’ alarming comments and unwillingness to see the diligent work we did. Hundreds upon hundreds of hours were put into the preparations. We knew the Games needed to be safe; we knew this wasn’t a situation where we could take a gamble – we had to get it right first time.

To do the work, we put together a panel with experts from a range of fields, including public health, travel and hospitality, theme parks, crowd management, economy and behavioural sciences. We scenario-planned the Games and anticipated challenges involving virtually all aspects of the Games. We also engaged with critics and took their views into account.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO had emphasised that the way out of it was through applying public health and social measures, such as physical distancing, wearing masks and hand hygiene, and backing this up with an effective and comprehensive test, track and trace programme.

All the expert advice was used to detail step-by-step guidelines for all Games participants in the form of what we called “Playbooks”, to ensure everybody knew what to expect, everybody knew what we were doing to keep them safe, and everybody knew what they should do to keep themselves and the Games safe.

With vaccinations around the world only starting in earnest in January 2021 and the emergence of the new, more contagious Delta variant, this journey was not short of challenges.

At that time, whenever I talked to people about how we planned to organise these Games, inevitably the same question would get asked: why do it under these most difficult circumstances?

COVID-19 countermeasures 2021 Getty Images

First of all, I believed we had to do it for the athletes. Some of them had been preparing for seven or eight years for their chance to perform on this world stage. Most of them then had to sustain that through an additional year while trying to maintain their motivation and their training in various forms of lockdown.

But there was also a hopeful message to be sent. With the mission to unite the athletes of 205 National Olympic Committees and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team under the same roof of the Olympic Village, organising the Games amid the risks and uncertainties of the biggest health crisis in a generation was always going to be a mammoth task. On the other hand, it was also this mission and the Games’ universal reach that gave them the potential to demonstrate that, if we pulled together as a global community, people could start to see that the pandemic did not have to control their lives forever.

One year later, I look back at this mammoth task and again feel the inspiration we have got from the amended Olympic motto, which was actually introduced during the Games in Tokyo: “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together.”

Dr McCloskey was formerly the Director of Global Health for Public Health England (PHE) and worked in public health at local, regional, national and international level over a period of 25 years, including the UK’s Health Protection Agency. He also had the lead role in planning the public health services for the Olympic Games London 2012.

He has been working with the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Mass Gatherings Advisory Group since 2008, heading up the Collaborating Centre on Mass Gatherings.

He also acted as PHE’s National Incident Director for Ebola when it became a national incident in the UK in 2014, and was then seconded to work with the UN Special Envoy on Ebola, based in Geneva, until April 2015.

 

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