Let the Games begin: It’s an Olympics like no other
James Waindi and Amos Abuga
As the greatest sporting extravaganza on earth officially kicks off today in Tokyo, Japan, it will be an event like no other, thanks to the stringent measures put in place to check the spread of coronavirus.
For the first time in history, the Summer Games will be held without spectators, an unprecedented measure put in place by the organisers to check transmission of the virus.
At least 11,000 athletes from 205 countries have converged on the Asian nation, known for its passion for sports, to battle it out for top honours in various disciplines.
Tens of thousands more among them coaches, backroom staff, officials, International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, media and broadcasters are expected to jet into the Japanese capital in the coming days as the Games progress.
From archery to wrestling, athletes will compete in 339 events in 33 sports, with four disciplines appearing for the first time: Karate, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing.
Those hoping to bag a medal range in age from 12-year-old Syrian table tennis player Hend Zaza to 66-year-old Australian equestrian Mary Hanna who is making her sixth Olympics appearance.
The number of Kenya representatives at the global showpiece has gone down by four compared to the Rio Olympics in 2016 where Team Kenya finished 15th overall in the medal table with a total of 13 medals (Six gold, six silver and one bronze).
Then, Team Kenya’s contingent comprised 89 sportsmen and women, as opposed to the 85 participating in the Tokyo Games.
The games organisers have worked hard to slash the cost and scale of the 2020 event after a historic postponement, but the numbers involved are still staggering.
More than 10,000 sports people, representing 207 nations, competed in 31 disciplines in Brazil, with 306 sets of medals awarded over the course of the Games.
While the last Games received some slight challenge in the form of the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil that recorded 205,578 reported cases, the epidemic was not as serious as the current coronavirus pandemic, hence the protocols were not as stringent as now. This time the story is different.
For one, the retinue of Kenyan dignitaries, including top Sports ministry officials, MPs sitting in the National Assembly committee on Sports, Culture and Tourism and senior honchos from the National Olympics Committee (Nock) and their sidekicks will not find it easy flying to the Tokyo Games, thanks to the tough pandemic rules in place.
When asked whether members of the parliamentary committee would travel to the Games, one of the MPs in the committee said: “I am not aware of any trip to Japan.”
Olympic champion and World Marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge, having written the 2:01:39 mark at the Berlin Marathon in 2018, will be the man to watch in a strong marathon team that includes Chicago Marathon winner Lawrence Cherono and World Marathon bronze medallist Amos Kipruto.
While all the attention will be on Kipchoge, it will be Cherono with a personal best of 2:03.04 who remains the dark horse in Tokyo.
The marathoner, known for his jaw-dropping sprint finishes that leave rivals gasping for breath, is no doubt ready for his biggest assignment this year.
In the corresponding women’s marathon, Kenya’s push for gold will be led by world record holder Brigid Kosgei.
She will be joined by Peres Jepchirchir, the World Half Marathon champion and Half Marathon World record holder, and World Marathon champion Ruth Chepngetich.
While a podium sweep has been predicted, it is Ruth who is likely to carry the day.
Having ended the 2020 season on a high, Olympic silver medalist Hellen Obiri is another athlete to watch out for in Tokyo.
The two-time 5,000m world champion will be counting on her imperious finishing kick when she goes for a double in 5, 000m and 10, 000m races.
An Olympic gold medal is the only silverware missing from her glittering career.
The 1,500m World Champion Timothy Cheruiyot will be another star to watch.
Timothy delivered his first world championship gold medal in Doha, Qatar, in 2019 in a 3:29:26 finish.
He is among athletes expected to electrify the athletics realm in Tokyo. The corresponding women’s 1, 500m too will be interesting.
Faith Kipyegon remains on track for an Olympic title defence if her form is anything to go by.
Beating world champion Sifan Hassan during the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on July 9 was a psychological boost ahead of their face-off in Tokyo.
Former World Steeplechase champion Hyvin Kiyeng looks poised to become the first female athlete to win the women’s 3,000m steeplechase in the history of the multinational sports extravaganza.
Kiyeng, the Olympic silver medalist, is riding on top form ahead of the Games.
She will, however, face stiff challenge from, among others, World Champion Beatrice Chepkoech and America’s 2017 World Champion Emma Coburn, and silver medalist Courtney Frerichs. Experience and form might just get her across the line first.
The other athlete of interest is 2015 world 10,000m silver medallist Geoffrey Kamworor. He will be spearheading Kenya’s hunt for the elusive gold in the men’s 10,000m at the Tokyo Olympics.
Already six Kenya Lionesses players only came out of an enforced quarantine yesterday.
Also quarantined was a Kenyan journalist. The rugby players were forced into quarantine after sharing a flight with a Covid-19 case, but they were finally released from a Tokyo hotel on Wednesday to continue with their quarantine at the Olympic Village.
The players had been held back in Tokyo as a procedural precaution after one of the passengers on their Qatar Airways flight to Tokyo from Doha tested positive for Covid-19.
None of the Kenyan contingent has returned positive results after being tested multiple times.
The team of six players and team manager Camilyne Oyuayo have now checked into the Tokyo Olympic Games Village, ending an eight-day quarantine in a government facility, leaving the Kenyan scribe who is set to complete his quarantine on Sunday, thanks to his early arrival in Tokyo.
The players will, however, have to live in isolation for the remaining time of their 14-day quarantine, Team Kenya’s chef de mission, Waithaka Kioni said yesterday.
“Although this isolation will be different because they are now with the rest of the family here,” Kioni said.
Athletes are being tested every day for the coronavirus at the Games, with confirmed positive cases not allowed to compete and placed in hotel isolation or in hospital.
An estimated 20,000 tests are being carried out daily, Tetsuya Miyamoto, senior director of the medical services department at the Tokyo 2020 operation bureau, told reporters during a tour of the Olympics Village.
Of those, 100 are expected to be carried out at a dedicated fever clinic, which will be used to test and isolate people suspected of Covid-19 infection or considered close contacts.
Already, four athletes from Czech Republic have been forced out of the Games even before they started after they tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.
Unlike Rio, this time Kenya will have representation in the women’s volleyball, women’s beach volleyball and Tae Kwon Do.
The number of female athletes representing the country at the Games has also increased drastically compared to previous Olympic Games.
Those who reign victorious at the Games will receive their medals atop podiums made from recycled plastic waste, the Games’ planners disclosed to international media through a zoom meeting last Friday.
Around 45 tonnes of recycled plastic will be needed to build 100 podiums. The plastic waste will be collected from the sea during marine clean-ups and donated by citizens at collection drops located at thousands of AEON retail centres around Japan.
Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto says he hopes the initiative will raise awareness about the importance of sustainability.
“By sending that message to both Japan and the rest of the world, we think this project will have great significance,” he said.
The 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals at the Tokyo Games are made entirely from recycled metal extracted from nearly 79,000 tonnes of used consumer electronics including laptops, games consoles and digital cameras.
As part of the project, 6.21 million old mobile phones were donated by Japanese electronics shops, schools and the general public, who put their goods in yellow donation boxes at post offices and on street corners.
At Rio 2016, around a third of the silver and bronze medals were made from recycled materials.
Competitors arriving at the Tokyo Olympics village also discovered something unusual about the beds: They are made of cardboard.
Some have shared images on social media of the modular bed frames, which are made by the Japanese company Airweave and are recyclable.
Organisers say it is the first time that the beds at the Games will be made almost entirely out of renewable materials.
But in the time of the coronavirus, when Olympic organisers worried about transmission are trying to discourage close contact as much as possible, the unusual bed frames have led some to suggest there’s another motive behind them.
Paul Chelimo, an American distance runner, speculated on Twitter that the beds were unable to support more than one person and were “aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes”. Soon the beds were being labeled on social media as “anti-sex.”
Although athletes have been warned to “avoid unnecessary forms of physical contact” during the Games to reduce Covid-19 infection risks, organisers plan to give out 160,000 free condoms after the event.
They are supposed to be “brought back by athletes to their respective home countries and to help them support the campaign to raise awareness” about HIV/AIDS, Tokyo 2020 says.