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400,000 COVID tests, billions of dollars, and an immense sense of pride: Meet the man responsible for pulling off the most complex Olympic Games ever

Summary List PlacementFor the spectator, the Olympic Games is a simple experience. We wait four (or in this case, five) years and then sit back and enjoy watching the globe's finest athletes battle it out in their respective fields.  For Christophe Dubi, however, the experience is much, much different. As the Games' Executive Director, Dubi is the man charged with planning, preparing, and delivering the world's biggest sporting event. His job begins with helping award the contract to a host city and ends only with the dissolution of the Games' organizing committees. In between, he is the "project manager" of the games – in...

Executive director for the Olympic Games, Christophe Dubi attends a press conference

Summary List Placement

For the spectator, the Olympic Games is a simple experience.

We wait four (or in this case, five) years and then sit back and enjoy watching the globe’s finest athletes battle it out in their respective fields. 

For Christophe Dubi, however, the experience is much, much different.

As the Games’ Executive Director, Dubi is the man charged with planning, preparing, and delivering the world’s biggest sporting event.

His job begins with helping award the contract to a host city and ends only with the dissolution of the Games’ organizing committees.

In between, he is the “project manager” of the games – in charge of everything from maintaining relationships with governments and international federations to managing the enormous Olympic budget. 

Appointed in 2014, he has now served at over a dozen summer, winter, and youth Olympic Games as Executive Director. Prior to that, he worked for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for almost two decades — seven of which were been spent as its Sports Director.

Tokyo 2020, he says, has been his biggest challenge yet.

The most ‘complex’ Games ever 

Dubi says organizing the Tokyo Olympics has been more difficult than any other games before for two reasons.

The first, and most obvious, is the global coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in the games being delayed by a whole calendar year – a decision which the Swiss administrator says was not made lightly.

“From the moment you make that decision, you have to reschedule the whole sporting year, the whole calendar, from qualification of the athletes to World Championships,” he told Insider in an interview during the first week of the Tokyo Games.

“Everybody within the system have to agree to change. Obviously, there were huge implications. Because when you move an event like this, it cannot be cheap.

“The operating budget before the pandemic was €5.9 billion ($7 billion). But if you move the whole system when you’re five minutes from being ready to go, you have to redo it all later, exactly the same.”

Dubi says the decision to delay cost the organizing committee and the Japanese government an extra €800 million ($950 million) each.

“You have the rent for the Olympic Village that was due to be released to the market, you have huge convention centers, probably among the biggest in the world, that are ready to host many other events,” he said.

“You cannot dismantle them and come back a year later. It meant that we had to rent for the entire duration. We had 75,000 hotel rooms that were meant for 2020. But we had to renegotiate each and every property.

“That’s really complicated to do from an organizational standpoint.”

Security guards stand at an entrance to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Athletes Village

On top of moving the date of the games, Dubi also had to work to ensure Tokyo was a safe place for athletes and staff to be amid the pandemic.

Japan has to date recorded over 970,000 COVID-19 cases with over 15,000 deaths, resulting in the nation dipping in and out of a state of emergency over the past year.

To protect those present, Dubi helped coordinate and build a “mass testing” model with the help World Health Organization (WHO) and the Japanese government.

“We are probably close to 400,000 tests, screening tests in the system since the start of the games,” said Dubi. “That’s an operation that exists nowhere else. 

“And it’s not just about spitting or putting something in your nose. It’s the capacity to treat and produce the result quickly. That’s a very sophisticated machine – you have one positive case you have identified, you have to isolate, you have to have contact tracing, and you then have to take care of these people.

“So to get that in place was immensely complicated.”

While COVID has spread at the games, outbreaks have been limited. 327 cases have been reported in total among the tens of thousands of games participants and staff, with just 124 cases linked directly to people from outside Japan in the country for the Olympics.

Advances in technology have also made Dubi’s job harder

The Tokyo Olympics has boasted a number of never-before seen technologies at the games.

This includes self-driving Field Support Robots (FSR) equipped with cameras and sensors that are designed to retrieve items like javelins; Human Support Robots (HSR) to guide athletes and bring snacks; and athlete tracking bots to record data during events.

All were designed to reduce the number of human volunteers required in the light of COVID-19 pandemic. 

Athletes in Tokyo have also been using a number of new technologies to help enhance their performances, all of which must be checked for fairness and safety.

China’s boxers are using 3D printed anti-grab shoes for the Chinese boxing team; Speedo’s new race swimsuits are modeled on sharkskin to minimize drag in the water; and cyclists are making use of Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that create simulations of the actual track in Tokyo. 

A robot delivers match balls on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium

“The whole tech and digital transformation is like living in exponential times,” said Dubi. “There has been an acceleration over the last, I would say, six to eight years.

“Every time you have more complexity, it is more sophisticated. A few years ago, we were only just thinking about cyber security, but now we have a huge budget for cyber security, and you have to be prepared for everything that can happen.”

He added: “In terms of complexity, the toughest games we had before comes nowhere close.”

Pulling it off has been ‘amazing’

To go back to the beginning: the Olympic Games is a simple experience for a spectator. And despite all the complexities that have been involved with Tokyo 2020, that sentiment still rings true.

From the comfort of a chair, it has been a pretty normal Olympic experience. There have been upsets and underdog stories; trips and tears; newly crowned champions and farewells to sporting legends. 

Had it not been for the empty stands, it could have been London 2012 or Rio 2016.

That, Dubi says, makes him extremely proud.

“You turn on your TV in the morning at six, you turn off your TV at midnight, and what you see is smiles, positive energy, and incredible athletes,” he said.

“And you can you can feel that from the athletes as well. Yes, there are no spectators, but we have venues like I’ve never seen before, they are just perfection.

“There is this feeling that there is nothing matching the games. You have sports in which, yes, you have amazing competitions. But this is different.

“And this comes across every single interview. It is it is bigger than than any individual achievement, you’re part of something that is value based, that is meaningful, true, not only for sport but for the world.”

He added: “So you know, when you have that, I mean, I cannot be a happier guy.”

Bronze medalist Maksim Nedasekau of Team Belarus, Gold medalist Mutaz Essa Barshim of Team Qatar and silver medalist Gianmarco Tamberi of Team Italy celebrate on the track following the Men's High Jump Final

Asked where pulling off Tokyo 2020 ranks among his career achievements, a modest Dubi said: “My career is irrelevant. For the organization, this is extremely big since it was the first ever postponed games.

“In terms of of pressure, in terms of challenge, in terms of investment, to help the athletes to continue to train, to help the organizers of competition, to help the smaller National Olympic Committees, all of this.

“It’s amazing for for the organization. It’s a huge, a huge relief, really.

“All these things we would never have imagined as an event organizer. But this is what we had to do.

“So when you take a step back, and you see what has been done, it’s a huge sense of relief at this point in time. And hopefully in a few days from now, a sense of pride.”

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