TOKYO — After a year of waiting and months of hand-wringing that reverberated across the world as a result of a pandemic, an Summer Olympics Games unlike any other is finally here. Sure, it’s the Olympics, but it’s also something entirely different in a very genuine sense.
There are no international admirers. In Tokyo-area venues, there is no local attendance. In the midst of a still-limited vaccination effort, a hesitant public is negotiating a raise in viral cases. Athletes and their entourages are confined to a quasi-bubble and face deportation if they leave. Government spies and surveillance applications are attempting to follow visitors’ every step – at least in principle. Alcohol use is restricted or prohibited. Cultural exchanges, which fuel most Games’ on-the-ground vitality, are entirely missing.
The unavoidable awareness of the misery and sense of dislocation that COVID-19 has ushered in, both here and throughout the world, runs through it all like an electric current.
All indications lead to an absolutely bizarre and atomized Olympics, one that will split Japan into two universes for the month of competition.
On the one hand, the majority of Japan’s mostly unvaccinated, increasingly angry population will continue to battle on through the world’s worst epidemic in a century, almost totally cut off from the spectacle of the Tokyo Games save through television. Illness and rehabilitation, work and enjoyment, all hampered by severe virus restrictions: life will carry on here, in whatever form it takes.
Meanwhile, the super-athletes and the legions of media, IOC officials, volunteers, and handlers who make the Games happen will try their best to concentrate on sports offered out to a rapt and distant audience of billions in huge (and immensely costly) locked-down venues.
The Japanese media has been enthralled with the Games since the epidemic postponed the initially scheduled iteration in 2020. Will they actually take place? If so, how will they appear? And the endlessly fascinating — and, to many here, terrifying — notion of hosting an Olympics in the midst of what may appear to be a slow-motion national tragedy has infected society nearly as deeply as the virus.
In a recent editorial, the Asahi newspaper stated, “The attitude that the Olympics can be forced through by force and that everyone should accept the command has welcomed this problem.” “The IOC and Japanese authorities should understand that their folly has increased popular skepticism of the Olympics,” says the IOC.
Of course, it’s too early to say what will happen when these crosscurrents collide during the Games, when approximately 15,000 athletes and, according to some estimates, nearly 70,000 officials, media, and other participants insert themselves into the flow of Tokyo life in sequestered and limited, yet ubiquitous, ways.
Will the typically welcoming Japanese people warm up to the tourists or grow enraged as they witness fully vaccinated foreigners enjoy liberties they haven’t had since early 2020? Will the Olympians and others follow the regulations designed to keep the nation they’re visiting safe? Will they introduce variations that will spread across Japan? Will the fight against the coronavirus be stymied?
One thing is certain: these games will feature considerably less of what the world has come to anticipate from the Olympics, such as the allure of high-level human competition among celebrations and cultural exchanges on the sidelines by spectators, competitors, and locals.
The Olympics are usually a lively period — a two-week festival for a host city anxious to show off its attractions to the rest of the globe. Tourists abound, bringing with them all the enjoyment that an unusual location and intriguing guests can provide. This time, though, it will be precisely staged for television, with Japan’s skeptics mostly isolated as yet another state of emergency imposes additional restrictions on their daily lives.
The tale that foreign visitors will focus on for these Games will be extremely different from what happens on the streets of the country.
In the unlikely event of a disaster, the IOC, local newspapers (many of which are also sponsors), Japanese television, and rights holders such as NBC will likely be united in their message: Just getting through will be viewed as a victory.
Few foreign journalists, on the other hand, would spend time in ICUs or pursue interviews with enraged locals who believe the Games were forced onto the country so that the IOC could earn billions in television revenue.
More than likely, there will be lots of made-for-TV photos of a tour-book version of Japan, with shots of old history, culture, and natural beauty mixed in with a high-tech, futuristic sensibility: Consider a sleek, gleaming bullet train slicing over the snow-capped Mount Fuji. In other words, a world rife with easy-to-understand clichés and predictable establishing shots.
The mismatch between sports and disease, rhetoric and reality, tourist and local will be impossible to overlook for many in Tokyo as it grapples with the inherent oddness of these pandemic Olympics in the coming weeks.
However, it will have to wait until the guests have left to see how a hesitant Japan would handle a high-risk experiment that might come to define the coronavirus pandemic in future years. Only then will the actual cost of the Surreal Games for the host nation become apparent.