It is unsurprising that this year’s Australian Open has been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organisers were taking on a mammoth task when deciding to hold the Grand Slam against the backdrop of a global health crisis, especially in a country where coronavirus cases have been kept to a minimum due to strict travel restrictions.
Such restrictions meant 72 players spent two weeks confined to the four walls of their hotel rooms in the run-up to the tournament. These players had the misfortune to fly into Australia on planes where positive COVID-19 cases were later identified.
While teammates and rivals were allowed up to five hours on a tennis court daily, those in isolation had to resort to hitting balls off the wall and completing five kilometre runs in tiny spaces.
The promise of competing in front of a crowd, such a rarity during these strange times, may have been a source of motivation for the quarantining players. Fans had indeed been allowed to watch the opening five days of matches at the Grand Slam, with the capacity limited to 30,000 spectators per day.
This was soon impacted by coronavirus, however. A snap lockdown was declared on Friday (February 12) in the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, after the number of COVID-19 cases linked to a Holiday Inn hotel at Melbourne Airport rose to 13.
All 13 cases were detected as the more infectious United Kingdom variant and an immediate circuit-breaker was deemed the most effective way of preventing a further outbreak. As a result, the Australian Open is to be played with no spectators until at least Thursday (February 18).
There have been other minor scares. Just days before the start of the Grand Slam, more than 500 players, officials and support staff had to produce negative coronavirus test results after they were deemed to be close contacts of a hotel worker who had tested positive. Fortunately for organisers, everyone tested negative, but the incident was a reminder of the precarious nature of holding a sporting event while COVID-19 is still rife.
Indeed, organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be keeping a keen eye on developments in Melbourne. Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley recently confirmed he would be sharing his experiences with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but also issued a stark warning to the organisation.
"I've seen the playbook for the Olympics, and I've looked at it carefully," Tiley told Reuters. "And compared to what we've done, we've had a far more rigorous programme than is being proposed at the Olympics.
"I love the Olympic Games. I'd like to see it be successful. But with the experience we had, I cannot see it working."
This warning is likely due to the difference in size of the Australian Open compared to the Olympics and Paralympics. In total, 1,200 tennis players, officials and media travelled to Melbourne for the tennis tournament. For Tokyo 2020, however, more than 11,000 athletes from 206 countries will compete across 33 sports. The complexity of organising the Games is gargantuan.
The idea that the Australian Open protocol was so rigorous, but still experienced so many hiccups, is worrying. If things can go wrong for a single sport tournament with just over 1,000 participants, what is the potential for mishap at Tokyo 2020? If something does indeed go wrong at the Games, it seems as if organisers have factored in little leeway to adjust.
A two-week quarantine period was mandatory for the Australian Open, which meant participants flew into Melbourne early to ensure they would be ready to compete. Even though some players had to enter a strict period of isolation, they were able to play once the Grand Slam got underway.
Compare this to Tokyo 2020. As it stands, athletes, officials and media will not have to quarantine upon arrival in Japan. In addition, athletes have been encouraged to spend as little time in Japan as possible. If a competitor tests positive for coronavirus or is deemed to be a close contact of someone who has, it is likely they will have to self-isolate and completely miss their event. As we have seen from the Australian Open, this is not an unlikely scenario.
Indeed, Tiley has urged Tokyo 2020 organisers to extend the length of the Games to allow for longer quarantine periods, with athletes training in their own accommodation before staged competition periods for each event.
A quarantine period also seems crucial from a health and safety perspective. Health authorities in Melbourne managed to stamp out incoming cases of COVID-19 and prevent an outbreak by enforcing a strict quarantine period.
It must be remembered that the Olympics and Paralympics are just sporting events, and that human life matters more. If there is an outbreak of coronavirus in Japan that is traced back to an athlete competing at Tokyo 2020, the responsibility for any subsequent deaths lie at the hand of organisers.
Of course, there is the hope that by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around, coronavirus cases around the world will have dropped significantly and the pandemic will be nearing an end.
The development of numerous COVID-19 vaccines has increased optimism of the Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place safely in July, August and September. Many of the athletes travelling to Japan will be inoculated against coronavirus, which puts Tokyo 2020 organisers in a better position then their counterparts at the Australian Open.
Nonetheless, there are many lessons to be learned from the preparation and staging of the Australian Open, with the importance of a quarantine period just one. Tiley's message seems to be that it is better to be safe than sorry, and it will be interesting to see if Tokyo 2020 organisers pay heed to these words.