Olympic Village rules may hinder smaller nations but their feats will captivate us | Ben Ryan
The Olympic Village is something else. Providing board and lodgings for all the competing athletes sets a low bar as far as describing its reach and remit. The food hall is a supersized smorgasbord that delivers food from all the corners and cul-de-sacs around the globe. Want fresh roti from a clay oven? You got it. Pasta till you turn into your own version of conchiglie? No problem. You can eat as healthy or as sugary and salty as you want.
It’s not just one food hall – there are many more spaced out inside the village alongside the cafes and other snack pit stops and dip-ins. The 24/7 McDonald’s in Rio had queues so long after the first few days that items were limited to 20 per person.
The big Olympic countries such as GB, USA and China will have an entire accommodation block for themselves while the smaller nations might share a block. Then the nations that might just have a handful of competitors will share a corridor with, normally, a geographic near neighbour. Then there’s the performance centres with gyms, massage available, recovery pods. Sportswear companies have their own “safe houses” away from the village where their sponsored athletes and guests can get their haircut, perhaps some bespoke underwear or have a smoothie as they pick up some more trainers and spikes. These aren’t small affairs and their cost to the sponsor will run into many millions of dollars.
But for the athlete, for all the staff that have their full accreditation – this is a golden ticket. It is all free. This is an important point. Those countries that don’t have the resources will get into the village as early as they can. It costs nothing for them. It is safe. It provides everything you need. Often the training venues are away from the village so the daily commute that involves a large number of security checks, metal detectors and waiting around for the designated bus can cause a fair amount of stir-crazy.
Team sports, where moving anywhere takes time and serious logistics, can suffer from this a lot more than individual athletes who are just more agile navigating this new and exciting environment.
This time around, no one is allowed to enter the village more than five days prior to competition. Exceptional circumstances might be made to extend this by a day or two. This will mean that for many of the smaller nations, the runway becomes very short and it’s going to affect the medal table. Weirdly it might help some of those team sports that have longer competition windows as they won’t get that drain mentally for as long, nor the distractions that village life can also bring. For individual athletes though, the ones where millimetres and reaction times are the difference to an early exit of a podium appearance – it is going to be a test.
With the Covid protocols so strict, athletes will get into Tokyo later than they or their exercise physiologists and coaches wanted. Some countries have made the decision not to select local athletes, only those that live away. Samoa, for example, are not sending their home-based weightlifting team as they are all island-based and there are worries about Covid returning back to their shores. Eight Samoans that are based overseas will compete. Those weightlifters were in all likelihood not going to win a medal, but they are part of the spirit of the Games. Flights are also harder to secure at the moment.
Most of the Fijian team are flying across on a cargo/freight plane – its normal passengers are frozen fish. As plans for the unveiling of “Big Kasumi” – a 4m tall monument of Japanese table tennis star Kasumi Ishikawa – are called off in Tokyo for fears of attracting crowds, there is the fear that the restrictions, the control, the suffocating protocols, will suck the soul from the Games.
Add to that the spectator situation. A state of emergency is in place in the Japanese capital. These are unique times, but athletes at the elite level are used to strict regimes and timetables. The 7am knock on the door by a drug tester, the early morning pool session or the smoothie perched precariously over the loo, to be consumed after that middle of the night spend of a penny – it is the norm for an Olympian.
GB cycling stars and husband and wife, Jason and Laura Kenny even stopped mashing potato before the Olympics as they feared the action consumed too many calories. Making sacrifices, living spartan lives – it doesn’t bother the athletes that have a higher focus. Their soulful experiences will be in the moment. Off the start line, at a penalty corner, as the bell to the next round rings.
We have had less joy in our lives these last two years. While sport is not life and death, it does provide a place for our neural pathways to aim. To boost our happiness as we watch a moment of magic or bravery or both. Those gold medal moments will always capture the dopamine hits but I think those smaller stories of athletes and countries that beat their odds, beat their glass ceilings, will capture our hearts this time even more.
It is not going to be a jet pack flying, shimmering Games this time around. But, just like those personal re-examinations we have had over Covid to prioritise what is really important to us, the Tokyo Olympics might also deliver those rich, heartfelt, ardent moments away from the glossy and the polished.