For the sport community, the Olympics are almost a ritual coming every four years but taking a lifetime of preparation. There were only few unfortunate years including during the world wars that forced the world’s greatest sporting festival to not be held. But this time, it is the invisible virus that forced the rescheduling of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The cost was not only endured by Japan. Especially in track athletics, where Ethiopia beginning with Abebe Bikila had reigned supreme alongside its neighbor Kenya, Ethiopian athletes were dropping every sweat for the Tokyo tournament. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw witnessed the emotional breakdown hard-trained athletes faced upon the postponed, and possibly cancelled, Olympics. While rumors this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games would be canceled due to COVID-19 are worrying Japan, Ethiopians show no sign of slowing down their preparations for the event. The Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) has been busy working on the national team and organizing trials. The Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC) kicked off preparation activities almost eight months back and all athletes are now in the team hotel.
Globally, the fate of the event is still unknown. The possible cancellation of the already postponed games would be mind-blowingly impactful for Japan which has already invested over USD12 billion. Such a decision would definitely be disastrous for all involved, including participating nations and athletes. It would not only affect 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes but coaches, sport federations, broadcasters, fans, and others would be heavily impacted.
It would be no different for Ethiopia. The Olympics are perhaps the single most major global event that can uplift the spirit of the nation. When the Ethiopian national team travelled to the Barcelona Games in 1992, it was their first in 12 years after missing out owing to political reasons. The country is among very few countries to have boycotted three Olympic Games in 1976, 1984, and 1988 in joining protesting countries. These political decisions made top talents like Miruts Yifter and Belayneh Densamo pay dearly in their careers.
Gebregziabher Gebremariam, well remembered for his successes in world cross country championships, understands the disappointment in missing an event as big as the Olympics. “I hope the Tokyo Olympics will not be cancelled. For Ethiopian athletes, championships keep our careers alive. We cannot afford missing out on these big opportunities,” he says. “Professional athletes in other countries have side businesses, sponsorship contracts, and other commercial revenue streams. Most of our athletes lack other sources of income if they do not make money from competitions. These athletes are already struggling because of globally cancelled competitions. The economic vulnerability may also force talent out of the athletics world.”
Athletes with dreams of running at the Olympic Games might need to prepare throughout the four-year period. This affects almost every plan and engagement they might have during those years. “If you are going to be told that your preparations were for nothing, that would shatter you,” explains Gebregziabher. “You know, sometimes you get injured after three months of mental and physical preparations for a marathon and you have to deal with the even greater emotional impact. Skipping an Olympic season doubles the four years that you had already waited for. And in eight years senior athletes may retire and even top performing younger athletes may move on to other disciplines. There are things you can never restore in a sportsperson’s career.”
Dagim Teshome, Operations Manager at the Great Ethiopian Run explains the potential damage of Tokyo 2020’s cancelation in terms of income. “There is no prize money in winning Olympic gold, but the legacy that comes with the medal gets you sponsors and races. It gives you bargaining power when dealing with race organizers for appearance fees. There will also always be gifts given by the government. One Olympic gold medal can be transformed into a lifelong income generating machine by athletes.”
As an athletics enthusiast, Dagim has concerns regarding the team’s psychological position while preparing for the event. National team athletes will obviously keep up-to-date on all updates, stories, and developments of Tokyo 2020. Every day, they train with these rumors in mind.
“Athletes will have many questions in mind like ‘Will the Olympics be held in a few months’ time? Am I going to get a race where I could evaluate my form? What if I contract the virus at the Olympics? Would the games still be cancelled after I have worked so hard training?’. All this impacts their preparations. Although I will be happy to be proven otherwise, I fear we will witness some poor performances from our team if the Olympics take place,” says Dagim.
Gebregziabher agrees upon the importance of psychological readiness for the team. “I hear people saying sport preparations require 50Pct physical and 50Pct mental readiness. I always argue the mental preparation takes 75Pct. I know how much belief, certainty, and focus boost my performance.
According to Dagim, Ethiopians desperately need Tokyo 2020 beyond the Olympic medals that it might award. The country could take advantage of the event and its elite athletes to counter the current negative narration around its national brand and image.
“Since barefooted Abebe Bikila’s heroic marathon win in Rome 1960, Olympics have always been a prime source of national pride. Tokyo 2020 would be a great opportunity to counter less than positive images following conflict and political unrest,” he believes. “During Olympics, athletes’ victory brings people together. These moments can generate the spirit of unity and togetherness to an entire nation. We may forget the ethnic backgrounds of the winning athletes while celebrating their victory in tears, under the national flag.”
EAF and EOC officials may need to consider contingency plans in case the Olympics are to be cancelled at last. “Psychological support might be needed for athletes, especially for the experienced elites who might not have another shot at Olympic gold. Having the World Athletics Championships in 2022 is one good reason to encourage athletes. Another uplifting arrangement could be to organize a domestic championship that could be dubbed ‘Olympic Memorial Race’. If they organize a week-long competition with the same format, it will inspire up and coming athletes and uplift the Olympic spirit and its participants.” EBR
9th Year • Feb 16 – Mar 15 2021 • No. 95