KOTANI Mikako took office as Sports Director of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Tokyo 2020) on Thursday 1 October 2020. As a senior official of the management of the Games, she is responsible for the coordination with the IOC and the IPC, as well as the various international and national sports federations to achieve an ‘athletes first’ Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Postponed by the global outbreak of COVID-19, the Tokyo 2020 Games will likely see strict measures adopted to ensure everyone's safety. But what is required to assure people of a safe Games? SD Kotani, a two-time Olympic bronze medallist in the solo and the duet synchronised swimming (now referred to as ‘artistic’ swimming) at the Seoul 1988 Games, shared her thoughts.
The unforgettable smiles of the athletes
What was your honest reaction when you were asked to become Sports Director of Tokyo 2020?
I have been involved in the Tokyo 2020 Games since the bidding stage. I was in Buenos Aires the moment Tokyo was appointed host of the 2020 Games at the IOC Session, so I was very much looking forward to the Games. As a member of the JOC and of the World Olympians Association, as well as a Japanese citizen, I have supported the Tokyo 2020 Games from various angles, and I have been eagerly waiting for the Games to take place. Although the Games have been postponed for one year, I was determined to do anything I could to assist, so I was very happy to be asked.
Since you assumed office, you have attended various meetings and inspected a number of competitions. Is there anything that has left an impression on you?
What I remember the most is the smile on the athletes’ faces as they competed. At the international gymnastics competition held in November, there were rules and restrictions no one had ever experienced before, such as wearing a mask while waiting to perform. But I could tell that the athletes felt really content to compete, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves in a positive way. When I saw that, I thought, “No matter what the restrictions are, the athletes want to take part in competitions,.” Later on I leaned from Mr WATANABE Morinari, President of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), that they implemented all the necessary measures and more, and at the same time they prepared snacks for the athletes so they could relax and provided other intangible support to ease their tension and anxiety.
When I participated in the Olympic Games Seoul 1988, the local volunteers would welcome me with a smile as I returned from practice and they would always ask me if there’s anything I need. They said to me, “Let us know if there’s anything we could do for you.” I remember that their smiles made me relax. So in addition to the various measures that are taken to ensure safety, I learned and was reassured of the importance of the additional efforts made to ease the tension with intangible support.
Rules should be observed for the sake of other athletes
Did you learn anything from the inspections of sports competitions that could actually be put to use during the Tokyo 2020 Games?
At the All Japan Tennis Championships, a team of medical doctors went around the competition area to make sure that the players were wearing a mask when they moved around off court and to give advice to any player who wasn’t feeling well. I was told that in order to participate in this specific championship, the players were required to take a PCR test locally in their place of origin before travelling to Tokyo. It is important to note that there is a difference in the understanding of the sport and the competition depending on where you’re from. Having experienced a sport competition during the COVID-19 outbreak, the doctors commented, “It is important to establish good coordination and cooperation between Tokyo and the other areas involved as well as across the different sports, and the role of the medical staff are crucial.” I understood that the coordination among the doctors and the role they play are very important, and I hope I can take advantage of what I learned and share the knowledge in other sports.
After the international gymnastics competition, you took part in the debrief where information and feedback was exchanged with the FIG. Was there anything useful that came out of the meeting?
The athletes who participated in the gymnastics competition were determined to contribute to the success of the event by making absolutely certain that they take thorough measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and they were also a bit nervous. They tried to minimise contact with other people at the competition site. At the beginning, the athletes wouldn’t even touch the snacks I mentioned earlier. That is how the competition started. Once the competition opened and the athletes competed together, and they realised that the people involved in the event as well as the volunteers were equally determined to provide a safe environment, the athletes started to relax and they felt comfortable enough to take home the snacks that were provided for them. By implementing thorough measures, people felt safe and less worried. It was a step forward. Taking little steps forward with various measures and efforts is something we should adopt in the Games.
Did you find any issues through your inspections?
As an Olympian, I could feel the strong sense of obligation among the athletes participating in the international gymnastics competition to set a good example for the Olympic Games. Of course, the number of nations and the length of the competition period are different from the Games. For many athletes, the Olympic and Paralympic Games is their ultimate goal. They maintain their motivation until it’s their turn to compete, but once it’s over and they return to the Athletes’ Village, they might let their guard down. There will be rules established, of course, but we need to send a clear message to all the athletes who gather in Tokyo from around the world and have them understand that it is currently important to wear a mask throughout their stay in Tokyo. It is important to observe the rules, not only for their own safety but for the safety of other athletes who are waiting for their turn to compete.
Provide athletes with information from someone close
What do you plan to do to reduce the concerns and stress of the athletes?
I attended the JOC and JPC Athletes Commission meeting the other day and shared the information I obtained. I did the same at the IF Seminar in October, and I’m sure the IFs will communicate the information to their athletes. But I believe that information coming through various channels and information obtained from me directly, even on line, have a different level of impact. When the athletes told me, “Your explanation was very clear. I’m no longer worried about taking part in the Games,” I knew that reaching out directly to the athletes was something I must do. It helps to have a close relation with the athletes when providing information, and I am ready to listen to their concerns and questions which I will also share within Tokyo 2020.
What is the most important key to deliver a safe Games?
With regards to the measures we will implement, we must do everything we possibly can. This will give athletes a sense of relief that they are being protected. We should also envelop those measures with our warm hospitality and our smiles to ease the tension. The specific measures will ensure safety, and the intangible support will make the athletes feel safe. By balancing these two wheels, we will be able to provide a safe and comfortable Games environment for the athletes.
The COVID-19 outbreak will affect the future of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
We are working toward a simplified Games, but as long as the stage and environment for the sports competitions can be secured, the quality will not change and the Games will shine. As we prepare for a Games in a world affected by COVID-19, we are faced with the question, “What is absolutely essential for the athletes?” The Tokyo 2020 Games will also be a new model for the Games of the future. In a positive way, it’s a good opportunity. Even in our daily lives, we stay close to home and spend more time with our family now so many people rediscover how much fun they can have together as a family. We found that on-line meetings can save time and money. So there are positive aspects that we’ve discovered or learned. Similarly, I think COVID-19 will open the door to a new era for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Hoping the Tokyo 2020 Games will prove how sports can empower society
Of all the Olympic Games you have actually attended, which one left the strongest impression on you?
I was very impressed with Sydney 2000 and London 2012. I ran as a torchbearer in Sydney, and I ran through a rural area of Sydney. After my run, I was surrounded by children who congratulated me for winning the bronze medal in Seoul and thanked me for running through their community, and they wanted to take a picture with me. I heard that in Australia, people respect you if you are a good person, contributing to society, not just because you are good at sports. I was impressed because it is that kind of education that led to the children’s gesture of studying about an Olympian’s background and culture and expressing their gratitude.
In London, the volunteers impressed me. When I went to see a competition at the main stadium, two elderly volunteers, one male and one female, were guiding people saying, “This way to the stadium!” I asked them, “You’re so close to the competition, don’t you want to go inside and watch?” And they replied, “We’re happy just to see all the people with big smiles going to the stadium to enjoy the Games.” They were a lovely couple so I thought they might be husband and wife, but it turned out they weren’t! This incident made me think how could we develop a culture in Japan that would make people feel content just seeing the smiles on the faces of people going to the stadium.
What do you expect from the Tokyo 2020 Games?
I hope we can prove through the Tokyo 2020 Games that we can do it if we are creative and use our ideas. Our Games Vision is, “Sport has the power to change the world and our future”. Shortly after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, athletes visited the affected areas to encourage the people there. But instead they were encouraged by the local people who told the athletes that they were looking forward to the Olympic Games in London the following year. The Japanese athletes who participated in the London 2012 Games won 38 medals, which was a new record for Japan. I used to chair the JOC Athletes Commission, and I observed the changes in the athletes. Seeing the post-Games parade in Ginza, I think many realised the enormous impact sport can have on people and society – that sport can move the hearts of people and empower society. I hope the Tokyo 2020 Games will prove how much impact sport can have on society, and by organising a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games, I want to deliver courage to Japan and the world.