Filled with doubt, division and Covid, Tokyo braces for Olympics
The joy and anticipation that greeted the International Olympic Committee’s decision in 2013 to award the 2020 Games to Tokyo feels like it belongs in another age, let alone a different decade.
With less than a week to go before Jill Biden and fewer than 1,000 VIPs watch the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at an otherwise empty main stadium, the people of the host nation are bracing themselves for a Games that few want, and which many fear will leave a public health legacy that overshadows achievements in the sporting arena.
As the world continues its battle against the coronavirus, it is perhaps fitting that Japan’s bid succeeded in part due to another human tragedy – the earthquake and tsunami that devastated its north-east coast in March 2011 and triggered a triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
If the then Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, managed to persuade IOC officials that Fukushima was “under control” – to the surprise of many still-displaced nuclear evacuees – Japan has been ill-prepared to dodge the Olympic-sized potholes that have since appeared along the road to Tokyo 2020.
Aside from the rows over spiralling costs that have become a rite of passage for Olympic preparations, the hosts have been buffeted by allegations of bribery during the bidding stage, a plagiarism controversy surrounding the original Games logo, and the complete redesign of the event’s architectural centrepiece, the $1.4bn main stadium.
In recent months, preparations have laid bare Japan’s struggle to live up to the values of gender equality and diversity embodied in the Olympic charter. In February, the then president of the organising committee Yoshiro Mori, one of Japan’s most unpopular postwar prime ministers, reluctantly resigned over sexist comments he made about female sports administrators.
The following month, Hiroshi Sasaki, creative director of the opening and closing ceremonies, was forced from the Olympic stage after he likened the popular celebrity Naomi Watanabe, who had been due to appear, to a pig.
On Saturday, there was more embarrassment after Japanese media reported that the musician Keigo Oyamada, a senior member of the creative team for the opening ceremony, once admitted bullying two disabled classmates and dismissed the incidents with a laugh in magazine interviews in the mid-1990s. Oyamada, better known by his stage name Cornelius, has apologised.
Nothing, though, has quite matched the pandemic for fomenting doubt and division.
Having forced the first peacetime postponement of the Olympics in March 2020, the virus has at times made it look almost certain that Tokyo 2020 would go down in history as the nearly-Games.
But those who believed that not even the IOC would impose the event on an increasingly sceptical, and fearful, host nation had not reckoned with the organisation’s determination to secure its multibillion-dollar broadcasting rights bonanza.
As opinion polls showed that most Japanese either wanted the Games to be delayed by another year or called off altogether, the IOC juggernaut simply rolled on, aided by local organisers and, in Yoshihide Suga, a prime minister who practically conceded he was powerless to apply the brakes.
Now that it seems there is no alternative to the planned 23 July start, the Olympic movement is about to preside over a Games with no precedent.
With Tokyo now experiencing a fifth wave of infections, prompting deeply unpopular restrictions on eating out that will remain in place until well after the Olympics, all but a handful of events will be held behind closed doors.
The capital’s residents now find themselves in the unenviable position of being asked by government officials to follow on TV an event they helped fund, and during a state of emergency necessitated by an Olympics most of them don’t want.
The virus has outwitted meticulous preparations at every turn, including disruptions to training camps and the Olympic torch relay – in ordinary times a highly symbolic precursor to the sport but which this year entered its final leg in Tokyo largely hidden from the public gaze.
In their determination to go through with the Games, organisers, the IOC and Japan’s government are banking on sport to offer a desperately needed distraction from 18 traumatic months of the pandemic.
The mere sight of the world’s greatest athletes – kept apart from the people of the host city and even from other competitors – vying for medals will “move children and younger generations”, Suga said last week. “As we confront the major challenges posed by Covid-19 around the world, it is even more important that we send out the strong message that we will unite and overcome this crisis through our efforts and the wisdom of humankind.”
It is even more important that we send out the strong message that we will unite and overcome this crisis through our efforts and the wisdom of humankind
But Suga, whose own chief medical organiser warned that holding the Games during the pandemic was “abnormal”, must know that sport will not be the only focus of the Games, despite his repeated assurances that they will be “safe and secure”.
After all, the beaming faces of the same athletes whom the unpopular Suga has tasked with rescuing Tokyo 2020 – and his own administration – from humiliation will be hidden behind masks when they are presented with medals they must then place around their own necks.
Visiting journalists have taken offence at “aggressive” warnings not to break strict rules on their movements, while news agencies are already keeping tallies of Games-related infections, including the discovery on Saturday of the first Covid-19 case in the athletes’ village, in addition to 44 cases among other people connected to the Games.
“We are doing everything we can to prevent Covid outbreaks,” Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian who succeeded the disgraced Mori as president of the organising committee, told reporters on Saturday after she was asked to address concerns that Tokyo 2020 could become a super-spreader event.
Speaking soon after the Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios and his compatriot Liz Cambage, who was due to compete in women’s basketball, pulled out citing anxiety over competing in the Olympic bubble, Hashimoto did marginally better than Suga at capturing the mood.
“People coming to Japan are probably very worried – we understand that,” she said on Saturday.
And so, it is fair to say, are millions of Tokyoites.