How the World’s Biggest Sports Events Managed COVID-19 in 2021 Part 1: The Olympics

Olympic rings over city

Sports event management around the world underwent a drastic transformation when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Last year saw mass event cancellations worldwide and the unprecedented postponement of the Olympics, Wimbledon, the European Championships and hundreds of other sporting events to 2021. Sports event managers had to make difficult decisions to postpone or cancel, manage ticket refunds, renegotiate venue contracts, adjust terms and conditions of events, make insurance claims, consult with health officials, and implement new restrictions and strategies to ensure public safety during reopening. 

This year, the decision to resume these postponed events came with new COVID variants and a whole lot of controversy.  

So, how did they perform?

In part 1, I’m going to take a close look at The Olympics.

The Tokyo Olympics

After its unprecedented postponement in 2020 due to COVID-19, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo was delivered in 2021 from the 23rd of July to the 8th of August amid much controversy. Local residents staged protests, and many questioned whether it was wise to host an event bringing in thousands of athletes and spectators from all over the world, as new COVID-19 variants continued to spread. 

To identify and manage the risks, an expert advisory group was assembled by the event organisers. 

This group was tasked with designing and implementing a raft of stringent coronavirus testing, isolation and social distancing rules, in cooperation with health officials. In particular, they felt they needed to design travel corridors and accommodation bubbles to keep athletes and spectators away from contact with local residents in Tokyo, most of whom did not want the event to take place. 

Some of the restrictions included

  • A ban on domestic and international spectators for Tokyo events. 
  • The marathon and race walk events were moved to remote locations, outside of Tokyo, and spectators were not permitted to line the route. 
  • At events where spectators were permitted, they were subject to social distancing, mask restrictions and not permitted to shout, whistle or talk loudly. 
  • All athletes and staff were required to do antigen tests every day. 
  • Athletes and staff were required to undergo two negative tests before arrival in Japan, including one at the airport. 
  • All athletes were required to do a three-day quarantine on arrival, with testing every day. 
  • All games participants were banned from using public transport in Japan for 14 days. 

The Olympics concluded with a speech from the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) praising this year’s competition as one of “hope, solidarity and peace”. 

Tokyo Olympics COVID impact

There is no disputing the figures; since the Olympics began in Tokyo, the numbers of daily infections soared. Tokyo was put under a state of emergency until the end of August, and was logging record numbers of cases during that month. 

However, the number of infected athletes and Olympic staff remained incredibly low. Officials logged a total of 430 positive results among Olympic athletes and staff since July 1, having carried out more than 630,000 screening tests. 

The dispute going on now is whether this spike in infections was caused by the Olympics, or if it was just an unfortunate coincidence. 

The IOC claims that the Olympics and Japan’s coronavirus surge are not connected. The group has publicly stated that daily testing as well as the “bubble system” separating Olympics participants from the Japanese public had prevented transmission between the two groups. 

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has agreed with the IOC’s assessment, and the head of the expert task force described it as a “safe and secure Games.”

However, Japanese health officials say that while numbers may have been kept low through vaccination and testing inside the Olympic village, this did not match activities and behaviour outside. Low vaccination rates coupled with lapses in social distancing, Olympics viewing parties, mixed messaging from the Government, and low levels of testing meant that the Olympics could have indirectly led to more cases

One Japanese public health expert noted; “It clearly shows that unless the pandemic is tackled both within and outside the Olympic venues, holding a safe and secure Olympics is extremely challenging.”

In my next post, I’ll review the UEFA Euro and Wimbledon in 2020 and 2021. 

Torrens University Events Management students delve into analysing these scenarios which have now become a reality in event delivery. The students identify and assess risk across a multitude of events and learn how to mitigate or at times, accept risk levels. They apply practical knowledge on how to effectively manage unprecedented situations for these types of global events. 

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