Liam Morgan

The vaccine deal announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this week provides yet another example of how desperate the organisation is for Tokyo 2020 to go ahead.

After being adamant athletes would not skip the queue for vaccinations in their respective countries, the IOC has struck an agreement which, in some cases, will allow them to do just that.

The principle reasoning behind the deal is, as always, financial - money is the main driver behind the IOC’s relentless push towards staging a global mega event during a pandemic as the organisation gets almost 75 per cent of its revenue from Olympic broadcast contracts.

By vaccinating the main body of participants - the athletes - you greatly increase the chances of the Games taking place, even as countries across the globe grapple fresh waves of COVID-19.

It also comes as organisers and the IOC struggle to convince a sceptical Japanese public that the Games should go on.

The IOC has said more than half of competing National Olympic Committees had informed the organisation that a "large portion" of their respective delegations will have received a COVID-19 vaccine or had confirmation they would be given one before Tokyo 2020 opens on July 23.

All this points towards the Games going ahead unless a drastic development in the pandemic dictates otherwise.

But for hordes of athletes across the world, their participation at the Games still remains up in the air because of the significant impact of the coronavirus crisis on qualification for Tokyo 2020.

Qualification remains a challenge for the IOC in the build-up to the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
Qualification remains a challenge for the IOC in the build-up to the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

With less than 80 days to go until the Opening Ceremony, 32 per cent of quota places still need to be filled, according to the IOC.

Tokyo 2020 qualification has finished in exactly one-third of sports on the Tokyo 2020 programme - 11 of 33 - but completion rates are as high as 90 per cent among some of the 22 where it is has not yet been concluded.

This also comes with the caveat that sports who use rankings to determine their quota places, such as weightlifting, tennis and golf, often finish their qualification process later than others.

Qualification has ramped up this month as 15 events where either direct or indirect Tokyo 2020 berths are up for grabs will have been held or got underway by the end of May.

Events are still being cancelled or postponed, however, which has resulted in yet more alterations to qualification systems and processes.

At the start of the pandemic, and when it became clear that COVID-19 would have a devastating effect on sport across the world, International Federations and the IOC vowed to be flexible when it came to qualification for Tokyo 2020. In truth, they had little choice but to be.

As sensible as that approach has been, there have still been stories of athletes being denied their shot at representing their country on the grandest stage of them all for reasons largely beyond their own control - contravening the fairness the IOC has consistently promised.

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold is among the many athletes whose Olympic dream has been dashed by COVID-19. Bujold this week said she will challenge a decision by the IOC after being denied a place at Tokyo 2020 because of changes to the qualification process.

Bujold, who many believe would have qualified in normal circumstances, was set to compete at the Americas boxing qualifier in Buenos Aires this month before it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Boxing quotas from the continent will be decided by rankings, but Bujold was unable to compete at the events used to form the standings because of her pregnancy and maternity leave.

Sarah Walker is among the hordes of athletes facing an anxious wait over whether or not they will qualify for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Sarah Walker is among the hordes of athletes facing an anxious wait over whether or not they will qualify for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

New Zealand’s three-time world BMX champion and Olympic silver medallist Sarah Walker has been left with an anxious wait to see if she will be given a place at Tokyo 2020 after deciding to skip qualification events due to travel restrictions and risks associated with COVID-19, an understandable choice given the global health crisis.

Walker, a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, has two upcoming events where she could have cemented her spot at the Games, one in Italy and one in Colombia, but told Newstalk ZB it was not worth travelling to either competition.

"I was trying to find more reasons to go but just couldn't find enough," she said.

Cycling New Zealand will choose between Walker and Rebecca Petch for the country's sole Tokyo 2020 spot in women’s BMX based on an international competition last February, where both made the semi-finals. A domestic trial race had been suggested before quickly being rejected by the national governing body.

There have been several other examples - including the entire North Korean team, if you believe coronavirus rather than politics was the reason for their withdrawal from Tokyo 2020 - and there are bound to be more as the qualification deadline nears.

Indian athletes who have not already qualified for the Games have already started to miss out given the troubling and deadly surge in COVID-19 cases the country is experiencing, which has led to travel bans and other restrictions that will prevent competitors from participating at international events such as Olympic qualifiers.

There will have been beneficiaries, too. New Zealand’s transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is perhaps the most notable athlete in this category after her bid for a Tokyo 2020 place was boosted by changes to the sport’s qualification system, announced this week.

While it is feasible Hubbard would have qualified anyway, she is now even more likely to become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics and is sure to be a huge story at Tokyo 2020.

IOC President Thomas Bach pleaded for understanding from athletes affected by changes to qualification for Tokyo 2020 ©IOC
IOC President Thomas Bach pleaded for understanding from athletes affected by changes to qualification for Tokyo 2020 ©IOC

The IOC, having previously stressed that qualification will be fair, is now accepting that it probably cannot be - leading to President Thomas Bach issuing a rare appeal to athletes last month.

"This is of course a very difficult situation for many athletes, and you can only explain this by telling the athletes the principle we are applying for the Olympic Games, as well as for the qualification events, is safety first," IOC President Thomas Bach said last month.

"We have to go safety first and we cannot take any risks.

"I can feel with some of the athletes which were hoping still to be able to qualify, but not being possible anymore because of the virus and the safety first principle.

"I can only appeal to them for their understanding that it is also in their well understood interests that we are trying to protect them from infection and from having to take such a risk for the sake of an Olympic qualification event.

"That is all I can do - ask for their understanding and respect and I think we have the respect for the safety-first principle because health is, for athletes and their future career, extremely important."