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Pound says Olympic qualifying issues a concern to IOC

Canadian lawyer and long-standing IOC member Dick Pound says the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee is firmly committed to hosting the Games.

Canadian lawyer and long-standing IOC member Dick Pound says the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee is firmly committed to hosting the Games.

Any suggestion otherwise is simply stating the obvious — that nothing is guaranteed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, Tokyo organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto was forced to assure the world again that the postponed Games will open in just over three months. Her statement came after Toshihiro Nakai, the general secretary of the ruling LDP political party, suggested cancellation was still a possibility amid surging COVID-19 rates in Japan.

"It's very clear that the party in power, and the prefectures involved are quite determined to proceed with the Games . . . whether it was a member of a party saying, 'Well, yes, of course. But nothing is guaranteed," Pound said. "There could be a wave three or wave four or five that might interfere with it.' But I don't think it goes any farther than that at the moment.

"They are fully committed to going ahead and they think they can create the necessary bubble for safety." 

Ensuring safety for athletes is obviously a top priority, but organizers also need to reassure the Japanese public. More than 80 per cent of Japanese citizens said in two polls that the Games, scheduled to open on July 23, should be cancelled or postponed.

"I assume there must be some plan to try and convince the ones who are sort of just against it that we can pull this off in a way that it's not going to be threatening to public health in Japan, that this would be a great achievement for Japan, and we hope you'll understand that we're doing what we're doing based on the best science we can avail ourselves of, and that we have no desire whatsoever to add to any public health problems in Japan," Pound said. 

In an editorial last week, the British Medical Journal cast doubt on the ability to keep the Games "safe and secure." 

Despite the surge in COVID-19 cases and a slow vaccine rollout, the IOC and Tokyo organizers are pressing on. The IOC, which relies on selling broadcast rights for 73 per cent of its income, has seen its cash flow stalled by the postponement. Japan has already invested at least US$15 billion to organize the Olympics, and national audits suggest it might be twice that much. All but $6.7 billion is public money.

The IOC and Japan organizers are scheduled to release updated "playbooks" on April 28 with more details about health and safety protocols in Tokyo. 

While no major shifts from the first playbooks released in early February are anticipated, Pound expects them to include more details around testing schedules.   

"There's going to be ongoing reassessment and testing within the bubble with sort of special places set aside if there happened to be any positive cases or any doubtful cases," he said. "And then the process basically is you're cleared at the airport you get onto a bus, which will take you to the Olympic Village, and you'll be checked in there. And you'll stay in the village until you get on another bus that will take you to your training or competition venue.

"Nobody's going to be downtown on the Ginza (shopping area) pressing flesh."

Qualifying for Tokyo remains a huge hurdle for many athletes. Canada's top boxer Mandy Bujold, an 11-time Canadian champion, learned last week that her Olympic qualifying event in Argentina had been cancelled. The spots available at that event will now go to the highest ranked athletes from events in which Bujold didn't compete. Bujold had taken time off to have a baby. The Kitchener, Ont., boxer has hired a lawyer.

Pound is aware of Bujold's case.

"I heard that particular story and I'm not sure what the proper resolution is," he said. "I think the idea now is to find some way that will avoid this kind of a casualty, resulting from the sole fact that the athlete is female.

"I think the IOC is wrestling with this. How they'll solve it I don't know. I think at this point, with a lot of the qualification meets are getting cancelled or postponed, it's up to whoever's organizing things, either the (international federation) or the IOC in this case, to find some kind of way that will be as undisruptive as possible, in circumstances. That's what they're looking for as we speak."

Partly lost among the immense challenges of hosting the Games amid the pandemic is the fact Tokyo organizers were on pace to deliver an Olympics without any major pre-Games issues. Other than some concerns about heat, the headlines were about venues finished ahead of schedule, and other good news.

"Oh, I think there can't have been any doubt in anyone's mind that these would have been the best prepared Games in history," Pound said. "It was kind of picking up where Tokyo '64 left off, where there was a whole new paradigm of the Olympic organization created on that occasion, and really opened the eyes of the world about the new Japan. I think they were going to do the same thing in 2020."

— With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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