Tokyo 2020 Olympics briefing: the final countdown

Today in a nutshell: rather than the calm before the storm, the start of Tokyo 2020 so far feels more like the storm before the storm, with Covid disruption in the camps and a host of problems of the organisers’ own making.

Tomorrow’s key moments: there will be a little bit of sport, but all eyes will be on what will be one of the strangest opening ceremonies in Olympic history, as Tokyo puts on a huge show for the world in a stadium that people are being instructed to stay away from.

You wouldn’t have wished the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics on your worst enemy, would you? As the week has progressed, the news for organisers just seemed to get worse and worse, whether it was sponsors too embarrassed to be associated with Tokyo 2020 any more, the resignation of composer Keigo Oyamada from the opening ceremony, followed swiftly by the sacking of the director Kentaro Kobayashi over a 1998 Holocaust joke, and a steady procession of athletes pulling out because of positive coronavirus tests, including Team GB’s shooter and medal contender Amber Hill and the five-strong Guinea team.

There’s also been the rapid U-turn after the Guardian revealed organisers had issued a diktat against showing images of players taking the knee before football matches on official social media accounts.

We’ve already had some sport. Japan opened the Games on Wednesday with a softball win against Australia watched by our Justin McCurry, the only Western journalist in the stadium in Fukushima. It was chosen originally as one of the host stadiums to showcase how the region had recovered from the devastating tsunami and nuclear accident a decade ago. Japan’s 8-1 victory did nothing but good for their hopes of repeating their 2008 gold medal, but as for the bigger picture, Justin noted:

Also on Wednesday was the shock result of Sweden beating the US women’s football team 3-0 in their opening match. It wasn’t just that it ended the USWNT’s 44 match uneaten run – it was the abject manner of their defeat.

Thursday’s early action has seen the opening group games in the men’s football competition. The pick of today’s fixtures look to be hosts Japan against South Africa, and Germany v Brazil. This evening there’s another round of softball pool matches, with the USA facing Canada, Australia looking to bounce back against Italy, and Japan taking on Mexico. They start at 10pm in Japan.

Team GB’s collective preparations are getting the full Covid disruption treatment. As well as medal hope Amber Hill’s withdrawal, 400m hurdler Jessie Knight has revealed she is one of the six British track and field athletes forced to self isolate after coming into close contact with a passenger on her flight to Tokyo. Mark England, chef de mission of Team GB at these Games, has warned everyone back home to buckle up for a bumpy ride. Mohamed Sbihi will make make history tomorrow as Team GB’s first Muslim Olympic flagbearer. Keely Hodgkinson is feeling bullish about her prospects in the 800m, telling Sean Ingle: “Is it ridiculous for me to win a medal? I don’t think so.”

It won’t be just that 3-0 defeat that it is a worry for the USWNT, but the poor level of performance. Beau Dure has written for us that they shouldn’t panic. Yet.

While the softball team had a torrid time up against Japan, Sam Kerr starred as the Matildas opened with a 2-1 football win over New Zealand on Wednesday. With most competitors withdrawing due to positive Covid tests, showjumper Jamie Kermond has made a name for himself by getting suspended for a positive cocaine use test instead. There was also upset after AOC boss John Coates appeared to order Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to attend the Tokyo opening ceremony despite concerns surrounding her making an overseas trip during the pandemic. Palaszczuk sought to downplay the incident, saying she’d known Coates for years, and confirming that she would go. On a brighter note, Brisbane’s candidacy has finally been confirmed as the Summer Olympics and Paralympics host for 2032, news which might cheer up a nation where half the population has found themselves suddenly back under Covid lockdowns again.

I said last week that maybe like no other Games in history, Japan’s representatives need to get off to a flying start. Japan finished sixth in the medal table in Rio with 12 golds and a total record haul, and may even better that in Tokyo, despite not having home crowds to roar them on. Justin McCurry has rounded up their best medal hopes for you:

Speaking of which, Russian athletes are also expected to have a big impact at the Games, even if, with the ongoing scandal over the Sochi doping scandal and ensuing coverups, they are competing as a team that is definitely Not Russia. Our Moscow correspondent Andrew Roth has been looking at their preparations, concluding:

The torch used for the Tokyo Olympic Torch Relay was made to resemble one of the symbols of Japan – the cherry blossom.

All events are listed here in local Tokyo time. Add an hour for Sydney, subtract eight hours for London, thirteen hours for New York and seventeen hours for San Francisco. I promise you, between us, we’ll have got the hang of these timezone flips by the end of the Games.

🌟If you only watch one thing: opening ceremony, 8pm (so that’s at 9pm in Sydney, noon in London, 7am in New York and 4am in San Francisco). It’s had an incredibly disrupted gestation with more drama this week, but despite all that, who doesn’t love an Olympics opening ceremony? There’s even a bit of novelty for seasoned Olympic watchers – the teams in the athlete’s parade will come on in their alphabetical order in Japanese which should mix it up a bit, although, as ever, Greece get to go first. We’ll obviously have live blog coverage, and you’ll get your next daily briefing soon after it has finished, with all you need to know about Saturday, when the sporting action really all begins.

Also on tomorrow:

You can find our full interactive events schedule and results service here.

Here’s a reminder of how the medal table finished after the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio:

1. 🇺🇸USA – 🥇46 🥈37 🥉38 – total 121
2. 🇬🇧Great Britain – 🥇27 🥈23 🥉17 – total 67
3. 🇨🇳China – 🥇26 🥈18 🥉26 – total 70
4. 🇷🇺Russia – 🥇19 🥈17 🥉20 – total 56
5. 🇩🇪Germany – 🥇17 🥈10 🥉15 – total 42
6. 🇯🇵Japan – 🥇12 🥈8 🥉21 – total 41
7. 🇫🇷France – 🥇10 🥈18 🥉14 – total 42
8. 🇰🇷South Korea – 🥇9 🥈3 🥉9 – total 21
9. 🇮🇹Italy – 🥇8 🥈12 🥉8 – total 28
10. 🇦🇺Australia – 🥇8 🥈11 🥉10 – total 29

I still have very mixed feelings about looking forward to a festival of elite sport, and the uneasiness of knowing that a lot of people in Japan feel it is being imposed on them at a terribly difficult time for the nation.

You can always get in touch with me at I’m interested in how you are feeling about the Games finally being about to get underway, and I’m especially keen to hear about the sports and competitors that you are looking forward to watching and cheering on that I might have missed.

Next time you hear from me, we’ll have all watched that opening ceremony, which the IOC must be praying will turn the mood a little in Japan. Until then, take care, stay safe, and enjoy.

Comments are closed.