Tokyo 2020 Olympics Controversies: From Covid to Gwen Berry, Swim Caps, Doping and Weather

The opening ceremony may be still a day away, but the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have already gone down in history as arguably the most controversial edition ever held.

In March 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Tokyo 2020 organizers postponed the Games by 12 months because of the COVID pandemic.

It was the first time the Olympics were postponed since they began in their modern guise in 1896, with the exception of the two world wars.

Over the past year, public opposition against the Games has only hardened, but the IOC has ploughed ahead and the Games of the XXXII Olympiad will officially open on Friday, July 23.

From strict COVID-19 protocols to the absence of fans, the 2020 Olympics will look very different from its predecessors. Coronavirus, however, is far from the only issue the Tokyo Games face.


The gigantic elephant in the room at the Tokyo Olympics. The coronavirus pandemic forced the IOC to postpone the Olympics by 12 months and continues to threaten the Games.

Two South African soccer players tested positive on Sunday, becoming the first athletes to contract the virus in the Olympic village, while six British athletes and two staff members were self-isolating after one of the passengers on their flight to Japan tested positive. U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff, meanwhile, is one of the high-profile athletes who will not be traveling to Tokyo after testing positive for coronavirus.

By Wednesday, the organizers had reported 79 cases of coronavirus in Japan linked with the Games.

Tokyo Olympics coronavirus
A sign with Covid-19 countermeasures seen at the entrance of the Main Press Center ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 22 in Tokyo, Japan. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

IOC's president Thomas Bach has repeatedly insisted the Games will be safe, but the organizers' reassurances have done little to quell fears competition could be disrupted by rising cases or, worse still, that the Olympics could turn into a superspreader event as many in Japan fear.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged it was impossible to completely eliminate the risk posed by coronavirus and that the Tokyo Olympics shouldn't be judged by how many COVID cases arise.

"The mark of success is making sure that any cases are identified, isolated, traced and cared for as quickly as possible and onward transmission is interrupted," he told an IOC meeting.

Social protests

To varying degrees, social protests have long been woven into the fabric of the Olympics. The stakes, however, appear significantly higher in Tokyo.

On Wednesday, Great Britain's women's soccer team took the knee ahead of their game against Chile, mirroring the stance the England's men's soccer team adopted throughout the European Championship this summer.

It was the first time the gesture, which was first introduced by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and has since become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, was performed at the Olympics.

Tokyo take the knee
Lucy Bronze of Team Great Britain takes a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to the Women's First Round Group E match between Great Britain and Chile during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sapporo Dome on July 21 in Sapporo, Japan. Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Ahead of the Games, the IOC confirmed that rules against protest at the Olympics this year would be relaxed, with athletes permitted to "express their views" before and after competing, but not during events, at ceremonies or at the Olympic Village.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry found herself at the center of controversy at the end of June when she turned away from the U.S. flag while the U.S. anthem was being played during the podium ceremony at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

Berry turned away from the American flag as "The Star Spangled Banner" began playing while she was on the podium with winner DeAnna Price and second-place finisher Brooke Andersen. Price and Andersen stood still, hands on hearts, and turned to face the flag, while Berry shuffled her feet and turned to face the stands instead.

She then draped a T-shirt over her head that featured the words "activist athlete."

Berry's actions were defended by her teammates, while White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended her right to protest peacefully. Predictably, however, her gesture was met with a barrage of criticism several high-profile Republicans such as Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw, who called for Berry to be removed from Team USA.

The impact of trans athletes

For better or for worse, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will have the eyes on the world trained on her when she competes in Tokyo. Hubbard, who came out as transgender in 2013 and had previously competed in the men's events, is the first ever transgender athlete selected to compete at the Olympics.

Hubbard has a shot at a medal in Tokyo in the 87 kilogram category and her participation has split public opinion. Those in favor have championed Hubbard as a trailblazer for transgender women and LGBTQ athletes, while the detractors have argued allowing transgender women to compete in women's events undermines the sport's competitive balance.

Intriguingly, the split is mirrored among the weightlifters Hubbard will compete against.

Samoa's weightlifting coach said her inclusion in New Zealand's Olympic squad was like allowing athletes to "dope," while Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said "this particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes."

Conversely, Charisma Amoe-Tarrant, who will represent Australia in the same category Hubbard and Vanbellinghen will compete in, was supportive of the New Zealander.

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the Women's +90kg Final during the Weightlifting on day five of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at Carrara Sports and Leisure Centre on April 9, 2018 on the Gold Coast, Australia. Hubbard will represent New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics. Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The ban on swim caps

At the beginning of July, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) voted against allowing swimming caps designed for natural black hair at the Olympics.

According to FINA, the caps, produced by Black-owned brand Soul Cap, do not fit "the natural form of the head" and to its "best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither required caps of such size and configuration."

The decision was lambasted by several Black swimmers, while Soul Cap founders Toks Ahmed and Michael Chapman suggested the decision highlighted the sport's lack of inclusion.

"For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial," they said in a statement posted on Instagram.

"FINA's recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming."

Tokyo's weather

Aside from stringent coronavirus protocols, athletes in Tokyo will also have to contend with the Japanese's capital oppressive heat. According to Kyodo News, in 2020 Japan's environment ministry issued 13 separate warnings against exercising outside between late July and early August—the same period of this year's Olympics—and issued a similar warning on Tuesday. While the temperatures are expected to decline slightly over the next few days, the decision to hold the Olympics during the summer has been questioned.

According to The Guardian, approximately 136,000 people in Japan sought emergency care for heatstroke over the last two summers between June and September, with a combined 230 deaths over the same period attributed to the same issue.

When Tokyo first hosted the Olympics in 1964, the Games were held between October 10 and October 24.

The long spectre of doping

In one aspect, the Tokyo Olympics will be extremely similar to its predecessors as doping remains an ever-present threat. A report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) following the Rio Olympics in 2016 found "serious failings" in the anti-doping methods in place at the Games, with up "to 50 percent of tests aborted" on certain days.

WADA's 55-page independent report found 4,125 of the 11,470 athletes that participated in the Rio Olympics had no record of testing in 2016 and 1,913 of them were competing in 10 of what the agency deems as "high-risk sports" from a doping standpoint.

Four years earlier, organizers of the London Olympics prided themselves on the 2012 Games being the "cleanest ever." That legacy, however, has been badly tainted with 149 athletes who competed at the London Olympics found guilty of doping over the last nine years.

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