Should there be consequences for breaking Tokyo 2020 Covid-19 protocol?

If athletes break coronavirus procedures, what kind of repercussions could there be?

We’ve seen a variety of sports trudge through the murky cloud that is the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. Some sporting organizations opted to go to extreme lengths to continue their season. Most notably the NBA and NHL. While those who opted for this bubble approach ultimately succeeded in keeping Covid-19 at bay, other sports leagues who’ve allowed for more individual freedoms like the NFL, are seeing cases popping up at random.

For these professional leagues, where the revenue is billions of dollars, with players and coaches being payed hundred of thousands if not millions; there is so much financial incentives for everyone involved, that social distancing seems like a minor inconvenience. Yet even so, we’ve already seen individuals break regulations that they are not use too.

While Olympic and Paralympic athletes certainly have a lot at stake in their own right, most of their livelihoods may not be at risk. The ultimate question is, will these athletes, not employed by the organizing body of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), be willing to give up their regular freedoms to participate in Tokyo 2020?

While most indications point to athletes willing to make the sacrifices, this conundrum ultimately raises some questions. What happens if an athlete decides to break protocol set by the Tokyo 2020 Organizers? One would assume that some kind of punishment needs to be given, but what kind is suitable for the current state of affairs? It’s hard not to see a suitable penalty being doled out, but ultimately is this fair for the athletes involved as well? There are so many factors to consider.

Possible punishments

We don’t have a fully-finalized comprehensive list as to what the procedures and regulations will look like for competitors and athletes come next year. Some information has been made public, such as implementing contact tracing and limiting contact with the general populace, but those are very general steps. We also know that the IOC will learn from the troubles that other sporting organizations have already faced, and it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of punishments Tokyo 2020 organizers decide to dole out, if the occasion arises.

Unlike professional leagues, which can enforce heavy fines by docking pay, it’s simply not an option for Tokyo 2020. Also disciplining an individual team or organization seems difficult to justify, unless it is widespread misconduct by the entirety of a national team. So the punishments may have to be directly related to competitions. Here are some of the ways in which these could be handled by the organizers.

Barred from competition

This is definitely a severe end result, that seems to be a last resort. While it is something no one wants to see, it’s however the most straight forward way to enact punishment on athletes that place their fellow competitors at risk. It can be implemented almost immediately with few repercussions on the end result of an event.

For individual sport athletes, they can simply be cut from whatever stage of competition they are at, and the next best person can fill the void they have left behind. It is slightly more troubling when it comes to team events however, such as gymnastics, rowing, ect.

What needs to be done is to give an expanded roster allowing for more backups than usual in team events. These substitutes can be used, should Covid-19 related issues arise, to allow teams to pivot at a moments notice.

Give an athletic disadvantage

This is much more complex than simply barring someone from competition. Sure in some sports you can simply take away points, but in others, disadvantages can be incredibly difficult to impose. Perhaps in the marathon and long distance events you can simply give a delayed start, but in something such as the 100m or 200m, even the slightest fraction of a second can be nearly impossible to overcome. This option seems unlikely, but if it is a feasible possibility, organizers need to consider it. The IOC should allow the individual governing bodies of each sport to decide a suitable punishment, as to leave the decision in the hands of those who know best.

There are some clear benefits to handing out these style of punishments despite the headache that it may cause organizers. For instance, there would less likely to be appeals from various national teams to overturn the decision. Simply kicking an athlete out of the games could very well bring upon massive uproar. Surely a situation organizers would like to avoid.

Fining a national team

Despite previously stating that it’s hard to punish an entire nation on the actions of an individual, we know that fining a team is an option at the disposal of the Tokyo 2020 Organizers. A fine could also be something done in conjunction with actually punishing the athlete themselves.

Because of the aforementioned amateur status, it seems almost impossible to justify fining individual athletes, as they aren’t making any money from the revenue of the event directly. It would be a PR nightmare. Many of the competitors, who participate in the Olympics and Paralympics aren’t ultra wealthy athletes who can afford to pay the fines on top of all the expenses of training and so on.

No, rather the organizers would have to target the national entities themselves. The issue is that the funding of each nation varies, and drastically so. A fine that seems like a slap on the wrist for some, could be devastating to others. You also can’t play favourites if you are the Tokyo 2020 Organizers, and ultimately have to hand out fines on a level playing field.

Stripping the athletes of medals or records

The assumption that an athlete would be willing to risk his or her opportunity for stardom before an event seems minimal. No, what is far more likely is that those athletes who have already competed, perhaps even won, are willing to break protocol to celebrate. I have a feeling that those who decide to do so after a medal winning performance would likely be sent back to their home nation immediately, rather than stripped of any hardware. Regardless, the general threat of possibly taking away a medal should remain, simply to dissuade those from doing so.

Public shame

Perhaps not in an overtly harsh way, but making an example of athletes that decide to risk others by making a spectacle of their infraction could also be effective. The international media would likely condemn and make a huge deal of it anyways, but the Tokyo 2020 Organizers exacerbating this could also work as well. Perhaps photos saying something along the line of, “don’t do this”, accompanied with a picture could be used to some effect. Nothing personal, and very general. Perhaps this is seen as juvenile, but could work to some degree.

Is this ultimately fair?

While these punishments are at the disposal of those in charge, there needs to be some perspective from the athletes side as well. It has to be asked. Is this fair for the athletes? If sprung upon the athletes in a surprising fashion, it simply can’t be considered ethical. What the organizers will have to do is certainly state the conditions, and the subsequent punishments publicly as soon as possible. While over 50% of qualifying athletes have already been finalized, organizers need to inform participants months beforehand so they can agree to these terms. Only once these conditional punishments are made public knowledge and agreed upon, can we say this is truly fair to the competing athletes.

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