Team GB’s chef de mission for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics has shot down suggestions the Games could be derailed again by Covid-19 – telling the Guardian “we are full steam ahead” and predicting they will be staged in front of packed stadiums.
A dramatic rise in coronavirus cases has led Japan to widen its state of emergency to cover more than half the population and reignited speculation about the Olympics, which are due to start in July. However Mark England, who will lead the British team, insisted they would not be postponed again or pared down.
“With seven months to go we are full steam ahead for the Games to take place,” said England. “This is not a Six Nations championship taking place in three weeks’ time. This isn’t an FA Cup match due to kick off next week. Time is on our side.
“The vaccine is an important part of that globally. And we’re very confident at this stage that the Games will absolutely go ahead. Japan’s prime minister has reinforced that and we’re working night and day to make sure we have a very safe Olympics.”
England, who is an influential member of an International Olympic Committee group planning for the Games, said he believed full stadiums could safely watch too – although he conceded that foreign spectators may not be allowed by organisers.
“What Japan has shown and demonstrated in recent weeks is not only an appetite to have full stadiums, but an ability to have full stadiums in a safe environment,” he said. “And that is really important so I’m pretty confident that will happen. Whether we see overseas spectators is a decision for the Japanese government in terms of their travel restrictions, and we’ll learn more about that in March or April.”
As the Guardian first reported last week, the IOC is hoping most athletes will be given the Covid vaccine in the “second wave” of jabs, after key workers and the most vulnerable in society. However England said he was against the idea of Team GB’s stars jumping the queue.
“I think it is completely right and appropriate that in this country we are protecting the National Health Service, and rolling out the vaccines to the vulnerable and frontline key workers in advance of anybody else,” he said. “We will play our part in that, no question. We are not asking for any favours in terms of whether vaccines are rolled out in advance of anybody else – absolutely not.”
England also confirmed that the IOC and organisers were working on several “playbooks” of measures to ensure the safety of 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes – including delaying the arrival of those competing in the second week into the athletes’ village and requiring competitors to leave within 48 hours of their final event.
“What we will see is an environment which may suppress the number of athletes at any one time in the Olympic Village and in congested areas, like the dining hall or transportation to competition and to training venues,” he said. “So it will be very different. That’s obvious. It won’t be the environment that we enjoyed in Rio, London or Beijing or whatever. But we will ensure that the Games are safe and take place in the best possible environment.
“The current plan is for no reduction in the number of athletes and no reduction in their support staff. So the integrity of the Games will remain the same for sure.”
On Wednesday a poll by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK found that just 16% thought the Olympics should go ahead in July, while a combined 77% thought they should be cancelled or postponed. England said he understood that reaction, but hoped that attitudes would shift once the virus eased and vaccines became more widespread.
“It is a consequence of being in the middle of a pandemic, which we are all hugely mindful of,” he said. “It is causing a significant amount of pain and hurt throughout the world. We’re mindful and very cognisant of that fact. But the important part at this point in the journey is that we still have seven months to go.”
A similarly optimistic message was conveyed by Penny Briscoe, chef de mission for ParalympicsGB, who predicted that there was a “high probability” the Paralympics would take place.
“We know there’s a lot of challenges out there and there’s probably things that will continue to emerge,” she said. “But the organisers are in a bullish mood that we will proceed.”
Team GB has confirmed that four shooters – Kirsty Hegarty (women’s Olympic trap), Matt Coward-Holley (men’s Olympic trap), Aaron Heading (men’s Olympic trap) and Seonaid McIntosh (women’s 10m air rifle and 50m rifle) – have been selected for the Tokyo Games.
Meanwhile Paralympic medallists Matt Skelhon and James Bevis, alongside fellow rifle shooters Tim Jeffery, Ryan Cockbill, Lorraine Lambert and pistol shooter Issy Bailey are the first confirmed members of an anticipated ParalympicsGB team of around 240 athletes from 19 sports that hope to compete in Tokyo.