In May of last year the newspaper USA Today ran a story headlined “Fact Check: Opening ceremony of London 2012 didn’t predict pandemic.”
It was a year for the fanciful and fantasists dangerously dovetailed with a reality nobody in living memory had ever experienced. In the last 18 months the pandemic has held a schizophrenic grip on an addled and divided population and yet this year Ireland has sent the largest team to an Olympics than at any time in its history.
Biblical in its wrath, the pandemic questioned society’s ability to respond and for athletes to ask questions they had never had to ask, told them to do things they had never had to do.
Stay apart. Don’t compete. Keep a distance. Isolate. Don’t train together. Don’t bond and don’t get close. The daft rejoinder was “Don’t Worry”.
Immersed in that changed landscape, the Olympic Games bobbed and thrummed. A relatively minor detail amid lockdowns and runs on hospital beds, the first configuration of the five-ringed circus finally perished in March 2020 and was postponed until 2021 after talks between Japan's then prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach.
Abe said they had established that cancelling the Games was out of the question, and that Bach had agreed “100 per cent” that a postponement was the most appropriate response to the global disruption.
Then it seemed like a soundly based, if chronically slow, reaction by the IOC as a vaccine had not yet emerged and people rightly began questioning the sanity of pursuing the project into 2021. It wasn’t difficult to see the emerging issues. In Rio 2016, there were 11,384 athletes representing 205 countries competing in 306 events. They lived in a series of apartment blocks, 21 buildings, 3,850 flats, 10,000 rooms, 18,000 beds and ate in a 24-hour catering facility.
Nor was it the first time the Olympic Games had not proceeded. In 1916, Berlin had been awarded the Games, which were then cancelled because of the first World War. The war intervened again in 1940, when Tokyo had been asked to be hosts and again in 1944, when they had been awarded to London. Other than the three years involving World Wars the Games have gone as planned until last year.
"In terms of the postponement of the Games, I think it very much depended on the stage of the career of the athletes and how it impacted them," says Kate Kirby, a sports psychologist with the Irish team.
“What we found was the younger athletes who might have been looking towards Paris really benefited from the extra year and found they were able to sustain their motivation because it created an opportunity for them. The athletes who were probably hanging on and hoping to retire at the end of 2020 found that extra year very difficult.”
It was in March of 2020 when Irish sport first began to experience the cold embrace of lockdown with then taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s announcement from Washington, where he tried to cauterise the spread by calling for the closure of all schools, universities and childcare facilities from the following day.
He added the cancellation of “all indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor mass gatherings of more than 500 people”. The GAA, IRFU and FAI immediately suspended all games for two weeks.
In an emerging scenario the Government said that all sporting activity could resume from June 29th and a fund of €70 million was provided by the Department of Sport to reboot sport activity.
But by August a number of TDs called for all sporting fixtures and events in Kildare, Laois and Offaly to be cancelled after a significant increase of Covid-19 cases in the three counties.
Soon after new restrictions were introduced and all sporting events had to take place behind closed doors again. Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced that spectators would be banned until at least September 13th.
A second and third wave of the virus rapidly arrived in the country at the end of 2020 and with it Level 5 lockdown restrictions. It seemed then sport was passing through the year rudderless and at the mercy of every ill wind.
While elite professionals and Olympic-bound athletes were allowed to continue in their bubbles, no other matches or events were permitted to take place. All gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools, tennis and golf clubs closed at 6pm on New Year’s Eve.
The IOC was not just standing idly by. In May of last year, concerned about the mental health of the athletes, it conducted a survey of 3,000 people. Fifty per cent of respondents labelled “keeping myself motivated” as a major challenge and nearly a third said “managing my mental health” was difficult.
In Ireland, 400m hurdles athlete Thomas Barr was forced to flip his thinking for the year. "The motivation levels definitely took a bit of a dip, a bit of a hit. This was one of those weird times when discipline takes over from motivation," said Barr.
For many of the athletes in Irish sport, including track and field, boxing, rugby sevens and swimming, they hadn’t yet managed to stage qualifying events by the end of 2020.
Boxing had tried in London last year but it collapsed and in an embarrassing abandonment of the event after a few days, athletes departed the Copper Box Arena taking the virus back home with them. It was a metaphor for the international association but also a glimpse of what was to come and the year’s changing face.
“There were very few who remained fully motivated throughout that year and a bit,” says Dr Kirby. “Most people had periods where they were good and periods where they struggled.”
As Christmas came and went there was little certainty. Athletes put on the blinkers and started to repeat their sports psychologist’s mantra of controlling the “controllables”.
In the background was a changing panorama. The politics of Japan went into full Olympic mode and full anti-Olympic mode. By then Abe had long announced his resignation as prime minister and had been replaced by Yoshihide Suga.
He too committed to the rings as the early months of 2021 provided a series of public opinion surveys from Japan, all of them expressing dissatisfaction that the Olympics were proceeding at all. Some of it was gratuitous politicking by the opposition in the hope it might smear the incumbent party with an election scheduled for later this year.
But there were also hard truths and respected medical opinion that said the Games should not proceed, that it was folly and dangerous. There were also a few own goals.
The IOC's insistence that "sacrifices" must be made to ensure the Games proceeded regardless of the situation sparked a backlash and more calls for them to be cancelled. Criticism of Australian IOC vice-president John Coates was particularly loud.
Lost in the irony that his country was one of the most locked down on the planet, Coates said “the answer is absolutely yes”, when asked if he thought they could be delivered despite the restrictions.
The net effect was a spalling of Japanese public opinion and the mental health of the athletes as their faith in what they had made the most important thing in their lives teetered on being taken away. Japan’s slow vaccination and the words “Delta variant” entered the vocabulary.
Despite IOC and government reassurances, there was enough negativity circulating to crack and peel the resolve of athletes; highly motivated and chronically habitual creatures, they relied on certainty and routine. But none of that was available.
In March of this year Liam Harbison, director of the Sport Ireland Institute, said as much when he announced there had been a significant increase in the number of high-performance athletes and staff seeking psychological supports.
“We have noticed in the last two or three months an increase in demand for psych services both on the performance side but also on the clinical side and we’re looking to create more resources in those areas,” said Harbison.
“I know a number of requests have come in to increase the resources available. I’d imagine it’s increased around 20 per cent. There are concerns. There are anxieties around Covid.”
In research conducted late in 2020 by Dr Kirby, along with Dr Tadhg MacIntrye of UL, just 40 per cent of athletes in GAA, rugby and Olympic sports said they were “thriving” during the pandemic, with 31 per cent “coping” and 28 per cent “languishing”.
The strain was particularly felt in those sports like athletics, swimming, gymnastics, rowing and hockey that are primarily showcased by the Olympics.
“The advice we gave to people was just to get through each day rather than looking too far ahead,” said Dr Kirby. “In January and February competitions were being cancelled all the time. Even the Games were hanging in the balance. The goal posts kept changing and using competition as a driver for motivation was hard to do because it was scarce.”
Latterly, the upswing with sports opening up has had varying degrees of success. The Irish rugby sevens team won their event to qualify a team for the first time. An Irish boxing squad travelled to Paris and came back with seven names in the Olympic pot, a triumph for high-performance director Bernard Dunne.
Track and field athletes have kept tumbling in with record Irish times being set, while the rowing team, backed up by European medals, also made decisive strides forward.
Now that athletes are on the ground in Japan and have certainty, Tokyo may emerge as an Olympic Games of who coped best in the long months of curtailed training and rejigged qualifying events.
As each country was hit differently and at different times and reacted in different ways, that too will carry into Tokyo after 18 months like no other for Irish athletes, where the act of arriving at the Olympic Games ready to compete has become in itself a major triumph.