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Have We All Been Sharing a Bubble of Olympic Delusion?

15th May 2021
An inspiration in dark times – Rob Dickson and Sam Waddilove saw the year of Olympic postponement as an opportunity to up their game to the stage where they secured the Men's 49er place in Lanzarote
An inspiration in dark times – Rob Dickson and Sam Waddilove saw the year of Olympic postponement as an opportunity to up their game to the stage where they secured the Men's 49er place in Lanzarote

Time was when the question of whether the 2020-Olympics-in-2021 should or should not be staged would have been described as the Elephant in the Room, suggesting the presence of an imponderable so large and unthinkable that the sanity-seeking majority of the global sporting population have continued determinedly along as though it is, of course, going to happen. The ponderous pachyderm, they've said, is a figment of people's imagination.

But a small but growing minority in sport are increasingly in agreement with the fact that an international super-spreader event like the Olympics simply has to be cancelled as the world still grapples with an ever-mutating virus.

That's the balance of attitudes within the gung-ho sporting community. But within the population at large, the situation is already very different, with 90% of the general population in host country Japan being against the idea of the Games going ahead in July – just two months and one week away, to be precise – while at the more specific level, at least 40 Japanese townships, which in previous Olympiad years had generously hosted national teams, have indicated that in July 2021, such teams will no longer be welcome.

A Spreader Event of Olympic proportions…..but even if the traditional Olympic Parade is not staged in the event of the games being held in Tokyo in July, can safe distancing be maintained in a country where vaccination levels are still very low.A Spreader Event of Olympic proportions…..but even if the traditional Olympic Parade is not staged in the event of the games being held in Tokyo in July, can safe distancing be maintained in a country where vaccination levels are still very low.

The emergence of this and other gloom-inducing facts during the past week or so, such as a lowly 1% vaccination rate in Japan itself, have contributed to what appears to be a tipping point in opinion in top sporting circles. This is leading to the weary resignation of preparing for acceptance of the unthinkable – that the postponed 2020 Olympics will not happen in 2021, and thus is there any point of thinking about a third attempt at staging them in Japan in 2022, when the 2024 Paris Olympics are already thundering up the agenda?

The scenario is so unthinkable - so unreal and rumour-prone - that those of us on the outside can only grasp at straws in the wind as to how things are going in the real decision-making centres. And for long enough, as the majority of us clung to the hope that the Games would go ahead - albeit in very shrunken relatively spectator-less settings – each little indicator that suggested things were on track was hopefully added to our viewpoint.

But in doing so, we were ignoring the sheer vastness, the extremely spread-out nature, and the very lengthy time-span of the modern Olympics. Even in the most normal of times, the potential for some section of the games to come off the rails is ever-present. So heaven alone knows what twists of disease and other trouble might unravel in the extreme heat of 2021 Tokyo in high summer, when hysteria can run amok.

When Ireland first sailed in a Japanese Olympics in 1964, the racing was staged in October when the intense summer heat had eased. This year's regatta is planned here at Enoshima in July, a bit cooler than the main centre of Tokyo nearby, but still making a period of acclimatisation for Irish sailors highly desirable.When Ireland first sailed in a Japanese Olympics in 1964, the racing was staged in October when the intense summer heat had eased. This year's regatta is planned here at Enoshima in July, a bit cooler than the main centre of Tokyo nearby, but still making a period of acclimatisation for Irish sailors highly desirable.

The two factors that seemed to put us through the tipping point this past week have been the Japanese townships' declining of the opportunity to host teams – for that was something very specific as opposed to the vagueness of a national opinion poll – and the outcome of an announcement last week, that this week would be seeing all national teams receiving their first jab of the Pfizer vaccine if they hadn't already got it, or were on some other vaccination.

The Pfizer seems to have emerged as the Gold Standard, as it provides 95% immunity whereas some of the "workhorse" vaxes, while still effective, give significantly less protection. But anecdotal evidence from personal experiences suggests that the two-part Pfizer super-jab leaves you in no doubt whatever that your body has been put through quite a major biochemical experience.

There's a four week gap between the two Pfizer injections, and a full return to feelings of normality shouldn't really be expected until about a fortnight after the second jab, though the latest research suggests that you'll have achieved virtually full immunity one week after Jab Two.

Full immunity and a feeling of general well-being are two very different psycho-physical states, and thus it's realistic to think that an Olympic athlete receiving the full Pfizer treatment would need to have a clear eight week period after the first jab, before they could hope to return to that very finely-tuned condition which is optimal performance preparedness, and has more physical and mental components than you'd think possible.

Thus when the announcement came last week that agreement had been reached for all un-vaccinated Olympians to begin the Pfizer course this week, with the response coming that Olympic medical teams were ready and able for the administration, it gave us small grounds for added optimism. For this proposed schedule was just within the time-frame for the full post-vaccination recovery of the athletes by the time the Games began to take shape.

Team Dickson/Waddilove performing at peak. To achieve this level of fitness, an athlete would need to be as far post-vaccine as possible.   Team Dickson/Waddilove performing at peak. To achieve this level of fitness, an athlete would need to be as far post-vaccine as possible.  

But so far this week we've not been able to confirm any evidence at all that the widely-welcomed vaccination programme for the Olympians has gone ahead, and that apparent non-event - in addition to the Japanese townships' "Not Welcome" announcements - suggest we're in a domino-effect continuum, at the end of which we'll find the cancellation of the 2021 Olympics.

That said, much of the athletic preparation towards the postponed Games has been done under the radar, and it could well be that it's official Olympic management policy not to reveal that a vaccination programme is under way at the moment until it is successfully completed, for fear of arousing some unpleasant protests from career begrudgers about the Olympians receiving elite treatment when the world is crying out for vaccination.

Most reasonable folk would strongly support the view that Olympic athletes – a very tiny minority – have done so much to inspire the rest of us, cheering us up generally through two winters of gloom, that they should as a matter of course have been among the primary groups for vaccination.

For sure, the real heroes deserving immediate vaccination have been the frontline health workers. But it's almost impossible to over-estimate the psychological benefits which those able to continue successfully with their sport have gifted to the rest of us. And while the unique nature of our sport has meant that quite a bit of in-Ireland sailing has been possible in pandemic gaps, it is the Irish sailing breakthroughs at a restricted international level that have been the brightest lights in the general gloom.

It was as recently as mid-March that the Afloat.ie Editorial Team were having a conversation with renowned coach Tytus Konarzewski about the chances of the "Fingal Flyers" 49er team – Rob Dickson of Howth and Sam Waddilove of Skerries - making it past the final stages of Olympic selection – the last chance saloon - at Lanzarote at the end of the month.

The hugely experienced Konarzewski has seen and done it all, and comfortably takes the long view. When he started coaching with Dickson & Waddilove, it was with the long count-down to the 2024 Olympics in mind. But didn't the boys go and spoil it all by winning the U23 49er Worlds at Marseille in September 2018?

This not only made them the Afloat.ie Sailors of the Year 2018, but also saw them yanked by the powers-that-be out of their buildup programme towards 2024, and pushed instead into the main road towards Tokyo 2020, while the highly-regarded Konarzewski was let go.

The Sage of Successful Sailing – renowned coach Tytus Konarzewski in thoughtful observational mode on Dublin Bay. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien   The Sage of Successful Sailing – renowned coach Tytus Konarzewski in thoughtful observational mode on Dublin Bay. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien  

It was an arguably unhealthy development in terms of campaign planning, but where others then came to see the postponement of the 2020 Olympics as a problem in the latter stages of securing the 49er slot in 2021, Dickson & Waddilove saw it as an opportunity to up their game, and as the final selection races came over the horizon, they were in a new place in terms of performance and potential.

Nevertheless, in that mid-March conversation with the great Tytus, there was still a huge element of the "what ifs" about the permutations which could make the breakthrough possible. And in the actual event when the pressure was palpable, the burden on the two young sailors was inescapable. Yet they managed it with the medal race to spare. And with the pressure off, their carefree performance of brilliance in the final race to leave so many top sailors behind them simply adds to our hopes that the 2021 Sailing Olympics at Enoshima will somehow take place.

The Fingal Flyers qualify for the Olympics – Sam Waddilove of Skerries and Rob Dickson of Howth in Lanzarote, with Rob wearing his lucky hat which reminded everyone of………The Fingal Flyers qualify for the Olympics – Sam Waddilove of Skerries and Rob Dickson of Howth in Lanzarote, with Rob wearing his lucky hat which reminded everyone of………

…..the sailing headgear which was the trademark of his famous grandfather Roy Dickson, seen here at the helm of his Corby 40 Cracklin Rosie at the start of the 1997 Fastnet Race. Photo: W M Nixon…..the sailing headgear which was the trademark of his famous grandfather Roy Dickson, seen here at the helm of his Corby 40 Cracklin Rosie at the start of the 1997 Fastnet Race. Photo: W M Nixon

Not least of the pleasures in their success in Lanzarote was that Rob Dickson took part in a post-race interview in his new "lucky hat", which fondly reminded all those who knew of it of the similar hat which was the trademark headgear of his legendary sailing grandfather, the late Roy Dickson.

This in turn reminds us that at its best, Irish sailing is just one great big family affair, even if it often involves putting an extremely broad meaning on what "family" signifies. But whatever it is, it's good. And while we hope very dearly indeed that our reading of the rules about the staging or not of the 2021 version of the 2020 Olympics proves to be wrong, should it be right we can only point to the next suitable date as being 24th July 2022.

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WM Nixon

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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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