Liam Morgan

We are so used to officials and organisations praising Tokyo 2020 that the ears prick up that much quicker when anything bordering on criticism is pointed in their direction.

That gushing rhetoric has been led by chief Tokyo 2020 cheerleader and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, who has repeatedly said how he "cannot remember a host city being as well prepared" as the Japanese capital.

But organisers of next year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games were given somewhat of a reality check in the Gold Coast last week.

The annual Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) General Assembly, wherever it is taking place in the world, is often a key battleground for any upcoming host city.

For Tokyo 2020, it has not always been a happy meeting. Last year’s corresponding event saw arguably the most vociferous denunciation of organisers’ progress since being awarded the event at the IOC Session Buenos Aires in 2013.

Sure, there have been lingering fears over the steep rise in budget, corruption allegations hovering over the bidding process and, in 2014, a series of International Federations (IFs) voiced their disapproval at potential venue changes proposed in an attempt to contain costs.

But the disgruntlement emanating from some of the Federations at the 2018 ASOIF General Assembly in Bangkok took on extra significance as it came with just two years to go until the 2020 Olympics open in Tokyo.

Leading the cavalry at the time was World Sailing chief executive Andy Hunt, who claimed Tokyo 2020 were a year behind in their preparations for the Games.

Tokyo 2020 would have been forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu as Hunt took the microphone in Gold Coast.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has praised Tokyo 2020's preparations for the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has praised Tokyo 2020's preparations for the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

Again it was the Briton who spearheaded the condemnation of the Organising Committee as he raised concerns regarding accommodation, expertise in the delivery of events and “the service levels being proposed for athletes at venues” while reiterating his previous issues with the management of test events.

"These matters need to be urgently addressed and rethought," Hunt said.

The International Triathlon Union shared the accommodation issues raised by Hunt before attention switched to sport presentation, otherwise known as the "look of the venues" at the Games.

To some, that aspect is perhaps cosmetic but to International Federations, battling for a share of the audience figures and for Olympic revenue, it matters. They believe the better their sport looks, the more attractive it is to viewers at home and the better the spectators’ impression inside the venue.

The most telling contributions on this subject came from the International Judo Federation and International Tennis Federation, represented by IJF Presidential office director Larisa Kiss and chief operating officer Kelly Fairweather, respectively.

Both Federations expressed their displeasure at the effect the cuts to Tokyo 2020’s budget, demanded by the IOC, will have on sport presentation.

Kiss highlighted how the IJF has events in Tokyo every year – the city stages an annual Grand Slam – and that it would be a pity to have a "yearly IJF event look better than the Olympics".

Fairweather, who swapped hockey sticks for tennis racquets when he moved to the ITF in 2017, urged Tokyo 2020 not to look at it as a "cost" and that shoddy sport presentation "is not going to be the best way to showcase the Games, your country and city".

The response from Tokyo 2020 was hardly promising for those governing bodies in the room who had asked a question or raised a point of contention. Games delivery officer Hide Nakamura admitted parts of the Organising Committee "think of it just as a decoration" before he promised Tokyo 2020 would not let down the athletes or the International Federations. 

At least there was an acceptance that there are elements which need addressing, which was in stark contrast to the attitude of Rio 2016 under former President Carlos Nuzman.

Carlos Nuzman saw Rio 2016 receive criticism at the 2016 ASOIF General Assembly ©Getty Images
Carlos Nuzman saw Rio 2016 receive criticism at the 2016 ASOIF General Assembly ©Getty Images

When I asked Nuzman about the criticism Rio 2016 had received at the 2016 ASOIF General Assembly in Lausanne, the wily Brazilian dismissed my question and claimed there were "no serious concerns" from the International Federations.

"You at insidethegames are always twisting things and it is not good for anybody," he added, before walking off in contempt.

Rather fittingly, our exchange took place outside a toilet, which is where Rio 2016’s preparations were heading at the time.

Tokyo 2020, to make it abundantly clear, is not Rio 2016, even if they are linked by accusations of corruption in the bidding process which ultimately led to the two cities being given the Olympic and Paralympic Games hosting rights.

Yet the members present in Gold Coast perhaps brought Japanese organisers down a peg or two – not necessarily a bad thing.

Complacency is sometimes even more dangerous than ineptitude and Tokyo 2020 must ensure the former trait does not creep in as we approach the one-year-to-go milestone.

The International Federations have given them a timely reminder that there is work to do in several areas, particularly those they consider important, before the Opening Ceremony on July 24.

ASOIF members will have plenty of other opportunities to hold Tokyo 2020 to account, including at next year’s General Assembly in Beijing, but it will be interesting to see how they choose to do so over the coming months.

International Federations seem to save their most stinging criticism for the ASOIF General Assembly. Whenever we contact any of the summer Federations, or if they send out a press release about Tokyo 2020, their tone is often different as they wax lyrical about how great the Games are going to be and how well organisers have done to this point.

Some International Federations clearly plan these interventions in order to give their message greater impact and to make sure their concerns hit home at Tokyo 2020. 

Whatever their motivation, it is refreshing and welcome to see. After all, IOC Sessions, for example, are notorious for the way member after member lines up to praise decisions taken by the administration rather than asking the difficult questions the sporting world wants the answers to.

Tokyo 2020 have vowed to take on board the feedback they were given in Gold Coast and they will need to satisfy International Federations if the adulation is to continue as they reach a critical stage in their preparations.