One year ago this week, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed.
Now, despite some recent suggestions they were set to be cancelled altogether, it looks more and more likely they will take place this summer and as Andy Anson sits in his back garden in Cheshire, wrapped up against the cold, he repeats a mantra about Team GB’s athletes that he says has become his obsession.
‘Get them to the start line,’ says the British Olympic Association chief executive. ‘That has to be our mission: get them to the start line.’
Andy Anson has spoken to Sportsmail about Great Britain’s hopes for the Tokyo 2020 Games
British Olympic Association chief Anson is focused on getting Britons at the start line
Ordinarily, a few months out from the Games, which are due to begin on the evening of Friday July 23 at the Olympic Stadium amid the leafy avenues of the Meiji Jingu Outer Garden, a conversation with Anson might revolve around UK Sport’s medal target for Team GB in Tokyo and the near impossibility of matching the performance of our athletes in Rio four years ago, where Britain finished second in the medal table with 67 medals including 27 golds.
Not this time, though. It is not that Anson lacks ambition for the 370 or so British competitors who will fly out to Japan this summer but he is smart enough to realise that at this Olympics, there is a bigger picture and that Baron de Coubertin’s maxim that ‘the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part’ will feel more emotionally charged than ever.
If things go to plan, even if events play out in front of reduced crowds and even though it was announced on Saturday there will be no foreign fans at the Games, the Olympics may be perfectly timed to be a giant moment of release, a sporting symbol of liberation after a year or more of incarceration under the yoke of Covid-19.
In those circumstances, Anson is clear about his organisation’s duty to athletes who have devoted five years of their lives to try to get to Tokyo.
The great fear is an epidemic of heartbreaking stories of distraught athletes deprived of the chance to compete at the Games because of a last-minute positive test for coronavirus. When rower Graeme Thomas was forced out of the Rio Games in 2016 because of a fever a few days before his event, it felt cruel beyond words. Team GB’s nightmare is what happens if we get Graeme Thomas multiplied by 10.
Tokyo 2020 organisers announced on Saturday that no foreign fans will be allowed to attend
The Games may now be played in front of reduced crowds containing only Japanese citizens
It is not like a footballer who has to miss a game against West Ham because of a positive test but knows he will be back for the match against Manchester City. There is no room for error at the Olympics.
In this distorted cycle, five years of toil and sacrifice are on the line and the next game isn’t for another four years. The idea of missing out because of a positive test does not bear thinking about.
‘We all still need to be ambitious,’ says Anson, ‘but our first mission and the object I have set everyone in order to create clarity is that we want to get all the athletes to the start line, in one piece, safe, secure, Covid-free. Get them to the start line. That is now our mantra. The last thing we want is lots of athletes quarantining when they should be competing. We have got to minimise the risk of that happening.
‘The Games are always a celebration of humanity and this time the hope is that they will be again, but more than ever. And maybe there will be a recalibration in terms of what achievement means and that’s why there’s power in the idea of getting athletes to the start line. We have got to focus on getting them there in a safe way.
‘Getting them to the start line has become my obsession because I know how much they have dedicated to this. That’s the only thing that really matters now. They’ll take care of their performance. The athletes know that they can all have an impact on each other and they have a responsibility to each other because there is no other event where you have 11,000 athletes in one place together.
Adam Peaty will be one of GB’s biggest medal hopes at the postponed Tokyo Games
‘You saw what happened in the Australian Open tennis where people got off planes and had to quarantine for two weeks but in an Olympic environment where some people get there 10 days before competing, that’s a nightmare. There will at least be less rigidity around the quarantining. It will be more based on testing and once you are negative, you can come out rather than having to wait for two weeks.’
Like Bill Sweeney before him, Anson has quickly become an excellent leader for the BOA. He has had a rich life in the business of sport — commercial director at Manchester United, head of the ATP in tennis, leader of England’s doomed 2018 World Cup bid, newly appointed chairman of Lancashire County Cricket Club — and like all sports fans, he likes a list.
The top three sports events he has been to, he says, are the 1999 Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich in Barcelona, the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah and the night in the velodrome at the Rio Olympics when Bradley Wiggins won gold in the team pursuit.
There is one other occasion he mentions. Anson is a big United fan and when he was a student, he got a ticket for the 1985 FA Cup final between United and Everton which United won 1-0.
Anson – who used to be commercial director at Man United – admitted one of the best sporting events he has ever witnessed was the 1985 FA Cup final between Red Devils and Everton
‘That Norman Whiteside winning goal was one of the best things I’ve ever witnessed,’ he says, ‘and then straight after it, someone peed all over my brother’s leg.’
It feels a little like a metaphor for his first six months in charge at the BOA. He began the job in the autumn of 2019, thrilled and excited at the prospect of leading Team GB to the Tokyo Games and then, with the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis becoming more apparent, the Olympics were called off.
Anson was clear then that it was the right decision. Now, he is equally convinced that it is the correct course of action to press ahead with the Games this summer.
‘I think it’s right that we should be going ahead with the Games,’ he says. ‘I feel like the world needs them. There is a lot of top sport happening around the world. I watched the golf from Sawgrass last weekend and it was brilliant. I watched the T20 cricket and it was brilliant. I think the Olympics is the biggest of them all and it needs to go ahead.
‘I have spent a lot of my career working in Japan and I love the country. It should be the most amazing Olympics. It is a little bit sad that it is going to be taking place in these circumstances but I do think that we can now do a really good job of making a big statement of saying the Olympics is happening and it is going to be as good a festival of humanity as we can have in these circumstances.
Anson maintains that the Tokyo Games going ahead is the right decision for all parties
‘We spend a lot of time talking to the IOC and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games [TOCOG] at the most senior levels and there is no one talking about it not happening. We have been on two days of calls with all our team leaders from our sports and it was kicked off by some of the guys from TOCOG talking about the environment and it is very clear they are in this very detailed operational planning mode and it is going ahead and there is nothing at all to suggest otherwise.
‘It is exciting but it is complicated. Secure bubbles, safety, in and outside the village. There are going to be a lot of raw noses from testing. All the volunteers who help out, they won’t be in our bubble, but you have got to make sure they are screened. The guys in the village won’t be allowed out that much. The intensity and the planning have gone up a whole level to figure out what Covid means.’
Nor is it just around the coronavirus where Anson is preoccupied with athlete welfare as the run-up to Tokyo gathers pace. In the years since the Rio games, there has been a culture shift in the win-at-all-costs attitude towards coaching and training in Olympic sports which led to allegations of bullying in athletics, Paralympic swimming, rowing, cycling, canoeing, taekwondo, archery and bobsleighing.
Many Olympic sports were accused of being so obsessed with the gold-rush that they became medal-factories that ignored the mental health of their athletes. More recently, a series of harrowing stories about the treatment of young female gymnasts has emerged and the evidence of emotional and physical abuse has been such that a group of former competitors has launched a class action against British Gymnastics, which is also the subject of an independent investigation.
The Tokyo Games are set to be held amid coronavirus travel concerns and bubble restrictions
‘There has been a culture shift in every sport,’ says Anson. ‘Hard coaching was once the norm and now we have moved to a different model. It doesn’t mean that bullying was ever acceptable and we have always got to make sure that we have got the right environment in place. The world needs to move on and the athletes need to feel safe and secure.
‘We are definitely going through a transitionary phase from one environment to the other. I am really keen, though, that the winning doesn’t come out of the messaging. Winning at all costs is clearly wrong because it has negative elements and negative connotations but winning the right way is the right message.
‘I have not met many athletes at the top level who don’t want to win, anywhere. We have got to support them to win. I have seen the best football manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson, close up and he is an example of how you have got to treat different athletes in different ways. Some respond to that hard pushing and the more old school way of coaching and some don’t. Some need cajoling and bringing on.
‘What’s important is that the coaches understand the athletes’ limits and if the athletes feel like they are being pushed into an uncomfortable place, they feel they can go and talk to someone who will listen to them and respond to it but getting that balance is not easy.
‘What I want us to achieve is openness. It’s the ability for everyone to communicate openly and say how they feel without any fear of something coming back to them negatively. That is what we have got to aspire to.
Anson has called on Britain’s coaches to understand the difficult situation that is happening
‘That is different in every environment, too. We have got to get to the point where athletes do not feel that if they say something, they won’t get picked for the team. It’s clear in gymnastics that there were a ton of athletes who felt they could not speak up.’
So these Olympics will be different in many ways for Team GB. Gold will be important. It will always be important. It will always be something to strive for. We will still laud gold medal hopes like Adam Peaty, Laura Kenny and Dina Asher-Smith as our standard-bearers. But after the pandemic, and after the fall-out from the Rio gold rush, there is at least hope that the greatest joy will be in the taking part.
The last time Tokyo staged the Games, in 1964, it marked the final act of reconciliation after the Second World War. This time, the Olympics carry the hope of a new catharsis.
SHADOW OVER CYCLING MEDALS
Some of British cycling’s greatest days were thrown into doubt by the Freeman scandal but Andy Anson insists the sorry saga should not ‘cast a shadow’ over those feats.
Former British Cycling and Team Sky chief doctor Richard Freeman was struck off after being found guilty of 21 of 22 charges relating to the ordering of testosterone in 2011.
But Anson, the British Olympic Association chief executive, said that, while he was disappointed by the case, he was ‘reluctant to have the whole thing tarnished by this one issue’. He added: ‘The trouble with the process is that it threw up so many questions and uncertainties. But I don’t want it to cast a shadow over all those achievements because we have had some amazing athletes coming through that cycling programme and still do.’