Disputed, locked down and running a year late, the Tokyo Games begin at last on Friday night, a multinational showcase of the finest athletes of a world fragmented by disease — and an event steeped in the political and medical baggage of a relentless pandemic whose presence haunts every Olympic corner.
As the first pandemic Games in a century convene largely without spectators and opposed by much of the host nation, the disbelief and anger of those kept outside the near-deserted national stadium threaten to drown out the usual carefully packaged glitz and soaring rhetoric about sports and peace that are the hallmarks of the opening ceremony.
“‘The festival of peace’ is now starting in an unimaginably disastrous state,” the Asahi newspaper said in an editorial, citing “confusion, distrust and unease.”
Hand in hand with this feeling of calamity is a fundamental question about these Games as Japan, and large parts of the world, reel from the continuing gut punch of a pandemic that is stretching well into its second year, with cases in Tokyo approaching record highs this week: Will it be enough?
“It,” in this case, is the product that’s being packaged and sold, the commodity that has saved past Olympics when they’ve become mired in problems: the deep, intrinsic human attachment to the spectacle of sporting competition at the highest possible level.
Time and again, previous opening ceremonies have pulled off something that approaches magic. Scandals — bribery in Salt Lake City, censorship and pollution in Beijing, doping in Sochi — fade into the background when the sports begin.
But with people still falling ill and dying each day from the coronavirus, there’s a particular urgency to the questions about whether the Olympic flame can burn away the fear or provide a measure of catharsis — and even awe — after a year of suffering and uncertainty in Japan and around the world.
The sports have already begun — softball and soccer, for example — and some of the focus is turning toward the competition to come.
Can the U.S. women’s soccer team, for instance, even after an early, shocking loss to Sweden, become the first to win an Olympics following a World Cup victory? Can Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama win gold in golf after becoming the first Japanese player to win the Masters? Will Italy’s Simona Quadarella challenge American standout Katie Ledecky in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle swimming races?
For now, however, it’s hard to miss how unusual these Games promise to be. The lovely national stadium is an isolated militarized zone, surrounded by huge barricades. Roads around it are sealed and businesses closed.
Inside, the feeling of sanitized, locked-down quarantine carries over. Fans, who would normally be screaming for their countries and mixing with people from around the world, have been banned, leaving only a carefully screened contingent of journalists, officials, athletes and participants.
Olympics often face opposition, but there’s also usually a pervasive feeling of national pride. Japan’s resentment centers on the belief that it was strong-armed into hosting — forced to pay billions and risk the health of a largely unvaccinated, deeply weary public — so the IOC can collect its billions in media revenue.
“Sometimes people ask why the Olympics exist, and there are at least two answers. One is they are a peerless global showcase of the human spirit as it pertains to sport, and the other is they are a peerless global showcase of the human spirit as it pertains to aristocrats getting luxurious hotel rooms and generous per diems,” Bruce Arthur, a sports columnist for the Toronto Star, wrote recently.
How did we get here? A quick review of the past year and a half seems operatic in its twists and turns.
A once-in-a-century pandemic forces the postponement of the 2020 version of the Games. A fusillade of scandals (sexism and other discrimination and bribery claims, overspending, ineptitude, bullying) unfolds. People in Japan, meanwhile, watch bewildered as an Olympics considered a bad idea by many scientists actually takes shape.
“We will continue to try to have this dialogue with the Japanese people knowing we will not succeed 100%. That would be putting the bar too high,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “But we’re also confident that once the Japanese people see the Japanese athletes performing in these Olympic Games — hopefully successfully — that then the attitude will become less emotional.”
Japanese athletes, freed from onerous travel rules and able to train more normally, may indeed enjoy a nice boost over their rivals in some cases, even without fans. Judo, a sport that Japan is traditionally a powerhouse in, will begin Saturday, giving the host nation a chance for early gold.
Still, while it’s possible that “people may come out of the Olympics feeling good about themselves and about Japan having hosted the Games against all odds,” Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, believes that such a scenario “is way too optimistic.”
The reality, for now, is that the delta variant of the virus is still rising, straining the Japanese medical system in places, and raising fears of an avalanche of cases. Only a little over 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. And there have been near daily reports of positive virus cases within the so-called Olympic bubble that’s meant to separate the Olympic participants from the worried, skeptical Japanese population.
For a night, at least, the glamor and message of hope of the opening ceremonies may distract many global viewers from the surrounding anguish and anger.
“But for the Japanese people, who will have a much more direct experience and feel more viscerally the empty stadiums and the strange contrast between this spectacle and their own continued struggles with controlling the pandemic, it may not have the same impact,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University.