The existing testing methodology and absence of quarantine requirements for athletes and delegates arriving at the Tokyo Games could pose challenges for the International Olympic Committee in an evolving virus scenario, says Abhinav Bindra. The former shooter and India's lone individual Olympic gold medallist, believes that science-driven tweaks to the existing Playbook might be necessary.
"The virus is playing out differently in different parts of the world right now," Bindra, who is part of the IOC's Athlete Commission, tells ESPN. "The Games are now a little less than 100 days away and though it may appear to be fast approaching, in a pandemic it feels a lot slower. We don't know yet what the India situation will be like in a couple of weeks and whether or how much impact it will have on other countries. One major concern is how fool-proof the RT-PCR test is. There have been reports raising doubts. The absence of quarantine regulations could then pose fresh challenges in the Games' conduct. The IOC task force is already working closely with WHO and might need to tweak the existing Playbook norms driven by science, in keeping with a dynamic virus scenario."
Currently, the Playbook doesn't require contingents to quarantine and lays down RT-PCR testing stipulation within 72 hours of their departure for Japan, and another test upon arrival.
Bindra's concerns aren't ill-founded. Last year, the British Medical Journal touched upon the 'lack of a clear-cut "gold standard"' for evaluating Covid tests being a challenge and fell back on clinical adjudication as the most trusted method. According to India's top medical experts, RT-PCR tests detect coronavirus in around 80 per cent cases. The possibility of 20 per cent cases escaping detection would be a risky proportion in an Olympic gathering. Rather than relying solely on RT-PCR, doctors are recommending clinical symptoms and chest X-ray/CT to ascertain virus cases.
Despite fresh assurances from organisers, Japan itself is struggling with a virulent strain and almost two-thirds of its populace remain opposed to the Games being conducted this summer. In his speech at the opening session of the UEFA Congress in Montreux, Switzerland on Tuesday, IOC President Thomas Bach said that the Olympic body will be closely watching the Euro 2020, which kicks off in June, 'for Covid-19 counter-measures' that can be incorporated in Tokyo. Both the Olympic Games and Euro 2020 were postponed last year and their organisers are bullish despite the virus surge that the two biggest sporting events of the calendar will go ahead a few months from now.
"The IOC has from the start been emphasising not looking at vaccines as a silver bullet, it is more about distancing and adequate mitigation measures to make sure that a big outbreak doesn't occur." Abhinav Bindra
"How we look at the Games at this point depends on our current circumstances and the kind of stakeholders we are in the Olympic movement," says Bindra. "For thousands of athletes, this is a once a lifetime opportunity after years of training and hard work, for those of us living in a part of the world where the pandemic is raging hard, killing thousands, we may look at it differently. For Japan, the tourism aspect, which is a sizable revenue driver is already out of the equation after foreign spectators were barred. The decision on whether domestic spectators will be allowed is yet to be taken (according to reports on Monday, not before June). It's not just the economic consideration, because from what I know, even if the Games are cancelled, it will impact Japan's economy but not really in a crushing, all-consuming way. Whether the Games can take place or not we still don't know but we do hope that it could happen in some form."
The host nation, which began administering vaccines in mid-February this year, has so far inoculated only 1.2 million people (or 1 per cent of its population), piling on existing Games concerns. "Japan has been kind of slow in rolling out its vaccination program. The IOC has from the start been emphasising not looking at vaccines as a silver bullet, it is more about distancing and adequate mitigation measures to make sure that a big outbreak doesn't occur. We've had over 340 major sporting events being organised across the world since September last year involving at least 41,000 athletes put together. Not even one tournament has turned out to be a super spreader. Of course, the Olympic Games are vastly different in scale and numbers."
India too has been dilly-dallying in vaccinating its Olympic-bound athletes. Despite the announcement in November last year by sports minister Kiren Rijiju, there has been little progress on that front. "I think we too have been slow in that regard," adds Bindra. "Now with vaccines opening up for everyone above 18 years of age soon, maybe they all can get inoculated. We still don't know how the virus is going to behave in the weeks ahead so training possibilities can be affected. Athletes who are planning on going abroad too have to look at the feasibility. The UK has already put India on the red list and other countries may follow suit too."
With India's daily tally of surging cases overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums, Bindra, like many others, finds himself despondent.
"Sport seems very secondary at the moment," he says. "I'm not even able to bring myself to watch an IPL game these days. When you think of matches happening, for instance in Mumbai when you know there are people scrambling for hospitals and oxygen and even dying, it's difficult. I'm a huge sports fan but I just can't get myself to watch anything right now."