One month to go: Why athletes think the Tokyo 2020 Games will be (even more) special

The sun is seen behind the Olympic rings in Odaiba marine park on 24 March 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.
The sun is seen behind the Olympic rings in Odaiba marine park on 24 March 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.

The athletes who are about to compete at this year’s Olympics have waited a year for the ‘one month to go’ countdown to begin. But rather than leaving them despondent, they’re raring to get going in Tokyo. Find out what Jess Fox, Ona Carbonell, Manpreet Singh and many more have to say about the upcoming Games. 

Eleven months ago the world celebrated the one year to go countdown to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games for an unprecedented second time.

The enduring image of that celebration was Japan's IKEE Rikako. Having beaten cancer, the swimmer delivered a message of hope to the world, encouraging people to look ahead to the Games in 2021.

"When all of that suddenly disappears, you truly appreciate how much it meant to you and how much you loved the sport. That was what happened to me," she said.

Tokyo 2020 +1 Message 
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Tokyo 2020 +1 Message

Almost a year later, Ikee has qualified for an Olympics, which - for so many reasons - will be even more special for her.

However, she is not the only athlete who has spoken about why the Tokyo 2020 Games will be more meaningful than ever. Athletes from all across the world have shared their thoughts about the unique place these Games will hold in their hearts.

Today, 23 June, their words are a celebration of the one month to go countdown to the Opening Ceremony and the moment when the true significance of these Games will be discovered.

Willy Hernangómez, basketball, Spain

I believe that people are even more excited about having the opportunity to celebrate an Olympic Games

Willy Hernangomez won a bronze medal at Rio 2016, alongside his teammates on the Spanish basketball team. He will once again attempt to step onto the podium at Tokyo 2020.

However, for him, the most important aspect of these Games will be the opportunity to send a message to the world.

"I believe that people are even more excited about having the opportunity to celebrate an Olympic Games that we wanted to happen in 2020 but eventually had to be postponed," he told Tokyo 2020.

"We have to try to make it to those Games, and try to make this situation - which people around the world are suffering from - better, and hopefully we will be in the best place that we can be next year, and can play and enjoy sports. Not only basketball, but all sports. And so we can forget all these bad times and sport can bring us the happiness that it always brings.

"The Olympics will be the moment this pandemic ends, and what better way to celebrate it than through sport, happiness, medals, matches, battles, races... all of it is related to sport, because in the end sport is health. The fact the Olympic Games can be held means we can all enjoy [good] health."

Willy Hernangómez talks to Tokyo 2020

Spanish basketball star Willy Hernangómez talks to Tokyo 2020 about his Olympic family and his hopes and dreams for next year's Games.

Jessica Fox, canoe slalom, Australia

It's been such a crazy 18 months that I think everyone would just be so happy to be there

Two-time Olympic medallist and “world’s best paddler” Jessica Fox highlighted the importance of not taking anything for granted.

"It's been such a crazy 18 months that I think everyone would just be so happy to be there. I will be so happy to be there. And just so grateful and privileged. I think, you know, we won't be taking that for granted. And to be able to represent Australia at a third Olympics is amazing. So, yeah, I'm very much looking forward to it and excited."

Manpreet Singh, hockey, India

The Olympic Games is the biggest stage for a sportsperson, and we are certainly up for the challenge in Tokyo

Manpreet Singh, India's men's hockey team captain, has been to two Olympic Games but that doesn't mean Tokyo 2020 will be any less special to him. In fact, he's just as fired up as ever.

"We can certainly feel the excitement within the team. We have been working very hard for the Olympics for the last five years and it's just a month away now. All of us are playing at our best during practice. We have to ensure that we execute our plans well during the Olympics. The Olympic Games is the biggest stage for a sportsperson, and we are certainly up for the challenge in Tokyo."

Elodie Clouvel, modern pentathlon, France

I hope it will be the end of this whole period that has been really difficult for the world

Having won silver at Rio 2016, modern pentathlete Elodie Clouvel will try to win gold at Tokyo 2020, after qualifying at the 2021 World Championships in June. In her mind, the next Games will be all about resilience.

“I think the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will be the Games of resilience. Why? Because we have gone through a very complicated period over the last year and we are so looking forward to these Games. We will all gather together over there, not with the same conditions as previous ones [Games], but it’s going to be extraordinary.

I hope it will be the end of this whole period that has been really difficult for the world and that it will become a beautiful message of hope.”

Keely Hodgkinson, athletics, Great Britain

People have struggled. Like I didn’t like it, so I think it will mean a lot more to people when they get there.

Great Britain’s teenage athletics sensation Keely Hodgkinson, who will compete for her spot in Tokyo at this weekend’s British athletics trials, hasn’t forgotten how hard it has been for athletes over the past year, nor the difficult times the world has been through.

"It will mean a lot, obviously with all the training from home last year. People have struggled. Like I didn’t like it, so I think it will mean a lot more to people when they get there, and to wear the vest as well."

Rommel Pacheco, diving, Mexico

Surely it will be the watershed moment, to tell everyone the world is fine, we are united and this is what sport can do

Mexico’s Rommel Pacheco is gearing up to take part in his fourth Olympic Games. Last year he spoke to Tokyo 2020 about his expectations this summer.

“I will use that time to visualise the dives, to focus on what the next year will be like. I'm sure everyone is looking forward to the Olympic party. Surely it will be the watershed moment, to tell everyone the world is fine, we are united and this is what sport can do.”

Rommel Pacheco shares his first Olympic memory

Halimah Nakaayi, athletics, Uganda

Whenever I dream I have the clear image of the track

Halimah Nakaayi, Uganda’s 800m World Champion and flagbearer at Rio 2016, can’t stop thinking about the Olympic Stadium.

Could anything be more inspirational than something that is running through your mind all day long?

"I’m lucky because I know the stadium. After the world championship in Japan I requested to visit the Olympic track. So I have the image in my mind, for sure. I know what the track looks like, I know where the warmup track is. So, just guess, whenever I dream I have the clear image of the track."

Ona Carbonell, artistic swimming, Spain

We have an opportunity to make people happy through the Games.

Or at least we can try to help people have some fun and make them forget, at least for a little while, this terrible year.

Ona Carbonell won two Olympic medals at London 2012. She also competed at Rio 2016 and will do the same at Tokyo 2020 with the Spanish artistic swimming team.

These Games will be more special to her because they will be the first ones she has competed in after giving birth to her son Kai in August 2020. But they will also be meaningful because they are so unique.

“Society in general, and Spain in particular, has suffered a lot [the last year]. Some lost their job, others lost loved ones, others are in vulnerable situations… So I think that, somehow, we have an opportunity to make people happy through the Games. Or at least we can try to help people have some fun and make them forget, at least for a little while, this terrible year. Sometimes athletes have the responsibility of trying to make people enjoy and in our sport, which is artistic, we have a way to reach people’s hearts.”

Jeremy Flores, surfing, France

Just being part of it is historic, especially the first one ever for surfing

For some, Tokyo is special because it will be the stage on which their sport makes its Olympic debut.

Such is the case of Jeremy Flores, who will represent France in a new Olympic sport, surfing, after booking his ticket to Tokyo at the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games.

"It’s historical. It’s a proud moment. When I grew up, I never even dreamt of being at an Olympics because surfing wasn’t in the Olympics. I always watched it. I loved watching the Olympics since I was a kid."

"So just being part of it is historic, especially the first one ever for surfing. And it’s kind of just a proud moment for my family, my small community of people from Reunion Island. Every time there’s an athlete that goes to the Olympics who comes from a small community, it’s like a super proud moment."

Manny Santiago, skateboarding, Puerto Rico

Every Olympics is special but I will say, ‘I was in the Olympics of the pandemic'

Skateboarding will also make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020. Puerto Rico's Manny Santiago will play be part in that historic moment, one that is also historic for humanity.

"These Olympic Games are super special because the whole world has gone through a pandemic. We faced it, we fought, and now we are here. The dates of the Olympics changed due to something horrible and, instead of losing, we won. We won because we fought for this to happen. 

“Every Olympics is special but I will say, ‘I was in the Olympics of the pandemic, back when the world was scary and we thought the world was coming to an end.’ And this will show the world that something could happen on a global level, but even then we came together to fulfill our dream. And it will mean that when people are feeling sad, they look at the glass differently. Instead of seeing it as half empty, they see it as half full.”

Rodrigo Corrales, handball, Spain

It is definitely a dream

For other athletes, such as Rodrigo Corrales, the goalkeeper for the Spanish handball team, these Games will be their first Olympic experience.

“The Olympic Games are a dream for every athlete because you can represent your country, you can live with the sports stars… It is definitely a dream. I’ve never been to any Olympic Games, but the people that I know that have been there say that it is better than what they’ve dreamt of. How will I be? Super excited. For me, they could happen tomorrow. Besides that, they are in Tokyo, and I love Japan. I think the nation will be a great host. I am super excited, like a kid.”

Ankita Raina, tennis, India

I am happy and looking forward to participating in the Olympics

For Ankita Raina, bronze medallist at the 2018 Asian Games, it will be the same. She will make her debut on the Olympic tennis courts at Tokyo 2020.

"It's a dream come true, all athletes play and train every day in the pursuit of the Olympic dream and for me now it is not a dream anymore. It was a dream and now it is a reality, so I am definitely happy and looking forward to participating at the Olympics."

Laura Gallagher, trampoline gymnastics, Great Britain

I think you can see how much sport brings and people miss it

Laura Gallagher gave up trampoline gymnastics in 2016. She thought she wasn’t in love with the sport anymore... but she was wrong.

She needed it back in her life, and her comeback was a total success. She has qualified for Tokyo 2020 and wants to share her love for the sport with the world.

"I'd just love to be part of something so special this year. I think it's really nice if everything can go ahead safely, it would just be a really brilliant opportunity for everyone just to come together.

"And I think you can see how much sport brings and people miss it. So, regardless of how it will look, it really will be special."

Carla Suárez, tennis, Spain

Having the Olympics in mind has helped me a lot

But if there is one comeback that stands above the rest, it may be that of Carla Suarez Navarro.

After an eight-month battle with cancer, she is aiming to compete in her fourth Olympics in Tokyo.

"The doctors told me it would be good for me to do some exercise, but for me it wasn't the same without a goal. As I was, it would have been very easy to just not do anything and not leave home. Having Roland Garros or the Olympics in mind helped me a lot – much more than people can imagine."

"Probably [the Tokyo 2020 Games] they are the most special ones because of where I've come from but I am one hundred per cent sure that they would be my last Olympic Games."

LANG Ping, coach of People's Republic of China's women's volleyball team

It will be a great one and of great significance

However, if you think the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are only important to athletes, you couldn't be more wrong

Coaches from several sports have also spoken up about the significance of these Olympics, including LANG Ping, coach of the People's Republic of China's women's volleyball team.

"Every country is trying hard to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Should the Tokyo Olympics take place as scheduled, it will be a great one and of great significance. It will provide a good chance for all the athletes and coaches to compete at the Olympics amid severe coronavirus concerns.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 21:  Head Coach Lang Ping of China speaks to players during the FIVB World Grand Prix Final group one match between Brazil and China on August 21, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for FIVB)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 21: Head Coach Lang Ping of China speaks to players during the FIVB World Grand Prix Final group one match between Brazil and China on August 21, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for FIVB)
2014 Getty Images

Lucas Mondelo, coach of Spain's women's basketball team

The Olympic spirit and the excitement rises above everything else. Because, in the end, history will say you have played at the Olympic Games.

Ever since Lucas Mondelo began leading the Spanish women’s basketball team they have been on the podium of every international competition, including Rio 2016 where there won the silver medal - a feat never achieved by Spain’s women’s team.

Mondelo doesn’t just know a lot about basketball and Spain, she also knows a lot about Japan, having coached Japan’s Toyota Antelopes since 2019.

"The Olympic spirit is really strong. It is really hard to destroy this spirit because it is something that has been everywhere for more than a century, since Pierre de Coubertin rescued it. Tokyo 2020 will be an atypical Games with restrictions, but they are still the Olympics, and they are still in Tokyo."

"That’s what it is. We have to adapt to everything and I think, in the end, the Olympic spirit and the excitement rises above everything else. Because, in the end, history will say you have played at the Olympic Games."

LIU Xue, coach of the Chinese athlete LIU Hong

If we can do it under such circumstances, I think it will be a landmark event for all mankind

For LIU Xue the Olympics are not just part of his profession, they are a family affair. Liu Xue is the husband and coach of LIU Hong, the 2016 Olympic 20 km race walking gold medallist who has qualified for this year’s Games.

"Objectively speaking, because the Olympic Games are truly a demonstration of the ability of human society to organise itself, so If we can do it under such circumstances, I think it will be a landmark event for all mankind, which is actually a positive and great thing”, he told Tokyo 2020.

FUJIKI Mayuko, coach of the Spanish artistic swimming team

Mandela said 'sport can change the world' and I think what he said is really true. And more than ever I think that's what we will feel.

FUJIKI Mayuko has a deep bond with the Olympics.

First, she won a bronze artistic swimming medal with Japan at Atlanta 1996, then she returned to the Olympics as the coach of Japan, People’s Republic of China, the United States and Spain.

In Tokyo, she will be in charge of Spain’s duet and team routines, and last year she spoke to Tokyo 2020 about the significance of participating in an Olympic Games on home soil.

"These Olympics will be very meaningful for us because I think that when we arrive in Tokyo, everyone will have been through a very difficult period of training to get there… so these Olympics are a dream, but also a little more special for everybody.

After being asked whether Nelson Mandela was right when he said, “sport can change the world,” she referenced how meaningful Tokyo 2020 will be.

"When all of us from all over the world get together in Tokyo, that's the answer. Because in that moment, it's more than the country you have on your t-shirt, it's that everybody has had a common difficulty to get there. So then that unity that we will feel is something that only sports can carry. So in that sense, I think what he said is really true. And more than ever I think that's what we will feel next year."