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Tokyo 2020: ‘People will remember the brands that dug in when others walked away’

By Tim Bleakley, CEO

August 3, 2021 | 6 min read

Tim Bleakley, the chief exec of Ocean Outdoor, has just spent seven days at Tokyo 2020 with Team GB as the only media partner in attendance. Here’s his account of being on the ground at what he says will be remembered as the ‘Adversity Games’.


Tim Bleakley, chief executive of Ocean Outdoor, has just returned from the Games in Tokyo

I freely admit that I was approaching this trip with some trepidation. As a member of the Team GB delegation, we had to undergo a strict testing regime before leaving, during our period in Tokyo and once again before we could leave.

Six PCR tests and lateral flow tests all needed to be negative before we could travel, and three days prior to our departure we had to go through a rigid pre-approval process to gain accreditation.

Once in Tokyo there was a two-hour check-in process requiring a negative PCR test, evidence of double vaccine and another PCR test at the airport, which was coded while we were kept in a separate seated area. If your result was normal, your number popped up on a screen and you went through passport control, albeit straight into a strict three-day quarantine period from your first full day.

Imagine the stress for the athletes had they fallen at the final hurdle and were put straight on a plane back home.

In Tokyo there was an 8pm curfew, which meant we were only allowed to visit the Olympic venues and Team GB House. We couldn’t go out and shop or visit a restaurant, and you wouldn’t have risked it anyway because we had to download a track and trace app so they knew exactly where we were.

Like the athletes, we experienced an initial level of regret that there weren’t the crowds and heady buzz of a major sporting event. That could probably have been handled differently, but you have to take into account that the prime minister of Japan is trying to get re-elected this October, so this was a political judgment. The powers that be don’t want to be presiding over a potential Covid incident.

On the up side, as foreign delegates we had access to all of the events, giving us an intimate, insider’s view. It was a strange balance to start with, but any regret or negative media headlines soon paled into insignificance. The organizers and volunteers were just happy to have us there and went out of their way to make us feel wanted and safe. There were no petty rules and everyone got into the spirit of it.

The ban on domestic spectators actually didn’t extend outside of the city, and events including the swimming, diving and triathlon were packed with officials, coaches and the athlete entourages. It wasn’t as desolate as it was portrayed and toward the end of my visit the shift in mood, emotion and momentum was very real.

What was very apparent about these Games is that it wasn’t about winning at all costs. In the face of adversity, people were just savoring the opportunity to be there – and you can’t underestimate the change in belief, attitude and approach once the athletes started to compete.

History is being made in Tokyo. There are some impressive displays of sportsmanship. Look at Tamberi and Barshim creating one of the most memorable moments of the Games by sharing a gold medal. And a European winning the men’s 100 meters, breaking Usain Bolt’s 13-year hold on the title. Quirky things are happening – and for the Olympic partners that’s only a good thing.

These will be remembered as the Adversity Games, and I don’t think we should underplay the sacrifices the athletes and their coaches have made to get to this point in the middle of a pandemic. Interrupted training regimes, worrying about being pinged or having to go into isolation – the tension for the athletes has been understated.

For the official partners, people will remember the brands that also dug in and made a real effort when others decided to walk away, associating themselves with an event that will be remembered for a unique set of reasons.

More brands have partnered Team GB than at any previous away Games. Circumstances have challenged them to use media differently, and they have done so. An example is Ocean’s official Team GB fan zone at Westfield London, offering unique consumer touch points in a safe, community setting.

These are also the Accessible Games as urban sports such as BMX freestyle and skateboarding show young audiences that anything really is possible, no matter where you are from. What an incredible platform for brands to tap in to.

For Team GB partners, it’s all about being inclusive, not exclusive. There’s something here for everyone. And just as our current young medal-winning athletes talk about how they were inspired, aged eight or nine, by London 2012, so too will they hand the baton on to the next generation of Charlottes, Declans and record-smashing swimmers.

What a legacy. Therein lies the value.

Moving forward, Paris 2024 will be the first big post pandemic event. The city’s close proximity to the UK will be a significant advantage for broadcasters, audiences and brands who want to leverage every opportunity without the distance or time difference.

Remember too that the man responsible for the first modern Olympics (Athens 1896) was a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the IOC. Now 128 years later, I suspect the French will once again be reinventing the humanity of the Olympic spirit and the euphoria of spectator sport.

Paris will be the Celebratory Games. It promises to be very special. And it’s only three years away.

Tim Bleakley is chief exec of Ocean Outdoor, an official media partner of Team GB.

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