Imagine if the president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee hadn’t resigned after he lamented working with female colleagues and that the creative director of the Opening Ceremonies hadn’t resigned for proposing that a popular Japanese comedian and actress be lowered into the stadium dressed in a pig costume and that, on the eve of the torch lighting, the new Tokyo 2020 president hadn’t walked into a news conference and announced that the replacement as creative director of the Opening Ceremonies had been fired for making fun of the Holocaust in a 1998 comedy routine.
Strip away all that. Put these Olympics back in the space where they were originally envisioned in 2013, when Tokyo won the bid. Even then, in that blissfully naive world, it was reasonable to ask: Should this be happening at all?
The Olympics have outgrown themselves, grotesquely so. That is true in normal times. In a pandemic, it is laid bare. In a lead-in in which the drip-drip-drip of news has been unrelentingly negative, it seems particularly stark.
“We are actually facing a lot of challenges right now,” Toshiro Muto, the Tokyo 2020 CEO, said Thursday.
“I guess there are still a lot of people that are not feeling easy about the opening of the Games,” added Seiko Hashimoto, the organizing committee’s president.
That’s the reality of these Olympics, even before they start. They will be monitored not just to see whether the coronavirus spreads through the Olympic Village and through the Japanese population, which isn’t as vaccinated as it could be. But they also will be scrutinized for how the athletes respond to the opportunity afoot, however bizarre it might be. If the Games’ slogan of “United by Emotion” means anything, what emotion — in the midst of all this — might unite the athletes?
“Well, it could be a collective grief from the pandemic that’s still obviously raging in a lot of parts of the world,” said Megan Rapinoe, a star from the U.S. women’s soccer team. “It could be relief in finally getting to do things again. And, hopefully, a sense of joy in having something to do and something to watch.”
Hopefully but not assuredly. Most Olympics are beset by some sort of pre-Games controversy, whether it’s a scramble to get ready on time (Athens) or human rights abuses by an authoritarian government (Beijing), whether it’s a tone-deafness toward widespread economic disparity (Rio de Janeiro) or the personal whims of an autocrat molding the event to reflect nicely on himself (Sochi). All blow their budgets.
In those ways, the Tokyo Games that await are no different. But the populaces of each of those previous host countries wanted their particular Olympics to succeed. When the bid was granted here, that seemed probable for Japan, too.
Shinzo Abe, then the prime minister, told stories in speeches about being inspired as a little boy by the Tokyo Summer Games of 1964. Then, the nation was rebounding from war, and the performances lifted the people. More than half a century later, the obstacle to overcome was different: the earthquake and tsunami that resulted in a nuclear meltdown a decade ago in Fukushima, a prefecture north of Tokyo. But the Olympics were supposed to both provide the same civic pride internally and project the same national image internationally.
“It was a rejuvenation,” said Sheila Smith, the John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It would say, ‘Japan is revitalized,’ certainly from Fukushima but also from the economic doldrums that Japan went through. It was a wonderful way, in Abe’s mind, of saying: ‘Japan is still vibrant. We’re still here. We’re still important. We have hospitality. We have culture. We have technology.’ ”
The pandemic has wiped away all that, and these Games will be staged in empty venues in a city whose restaurants and bars aren’t allowed to serve alcohol, owing to a “state of emergency” that will cover the run of the Olympics.
At the start of 2020, when Abe resigned early in his term, he was replaced by Yoshihide Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer who determinedly rose through the government. Owing to that work ethic, Suga’s early approval ratings were astronomical. Last month, some polls showed his rating had plummeted to 33 percent, a victim of his handling of covid and the relentlessness of the Olympics, which the country was contractually obligated to hold.
What’s clear is that what will follow over the next 17 days won’t stoke national pride. It will be a television show, one that needed a soundstage. This is the last of five Olympics that NBC paid $4.38 billion to broadcast, and the Beijing Winter Olympics that lie just six months off begin a new deal to carry the next six Games for $7.75 billion. Prohibiting fans doesn’t preclude selling commercials. Look at those numbers, and it’s no mystery why Tokyo 2020 charges forward.
We would be remiss, too, not to address the needs and wants of the athletes. So many have endured strains on their mental health through an extra, unexpected year of training. All are being asked to undergo tests, to prepare in an unprecedented Olympic environment that doesn’t at all resemble what the Olympics are supposed to be, communal and celebratory, cross-cultural and inclusive. Rather, it could seem isolating.
Still, they want to be here. Diana Taurasi, an American basketball star, said that as soon as the women won gold in Rio, her goal was to make a fifth Olympics.
So the competition will happen despite broadly ambivalent public sentiment and embarrassing missteps and microaggressions that have marred the run-up.
“The sentiment seems to be, ‘If you’re going to do it, let’s support the athletes,’ ” Smith said. “ ‘If you’re going to do it, why can’t we watch the Games?’ There’s a little bit of sadness that the Games can’t be enjoyed and the athletes can’t be cheered on. There’s disappointment and loss.”
That’s not a way to begin an Olympics in a pandemic. But really, it’s not a way to begin any Olympics, which can strain the host nation financially and emotionally. The best way to consume these Games, then, is to focus on Rapinoe: find joy in having something to do and something to watch. Allow the athletes their opportunity despite the environment. And hope that we don’t leave here saying, “Why in the world did that just happen?”