At the opening of the Tokyo Games, can the Olympic flame burn the funk?
TOKYO (AP) – Contested, locked down and a year late, the Tokyo Games finally begin on Friday night, a multinational showcase of the best athletes in 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 unfold largely without spectators and opposed by much of the host nation, the disbelief and anger of those kept outside the nearly deserted national stadium threaten. to drown out the usual carefully wrapped pomp and rising rhetoric about sport and peace that characterizes the Opening Ceremony.
“The Peace Day is now starting in an incredibly dire state,” the Asahi newspaper said in an op-ed, citing “the confusion, mistrust and unease.”
Hand in hand with this sense of calamity is a fundamental question about these Games as Japan and large parts of the world are in continued shock from a pandemic that is stretching well into its second year, with cases in Tokyo approaching records. this week: will it be enough?
“That”, in this case, is the product that is packaged and sold, the merchandise that saved the past Olympics when they got bogged down in trouble: the deep and intrinsic human attachment to the spectacle of competitive sports in the world. highest level possible.
Time and time again, previous opening ceremonies have achieved something akin to magic. Scandals – corruption in Salt Lake City, censorship and pollution in Beijing, doping in Sochi – take a back seat when sports begin.
But with people still falling ill and dying every day from the coronavirus, there is a special urgency to wonder if the Olympic flame can burn fear or provide a measure of catharsis – and even fear – after a year of suffering and of uncertainty in Japan and the world.
Sports have already started – softball and soccer, for example – and some of the attention turns to the competition ahead.
Can the United States women’s football team, for example, even after an early and shocking loss to Sweden become the first to win an Olympics after a World Cup victory? Can Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama win golf gold after becoming the first Japanese player to win the Masters? Will Italian Simona Quadarella challenge American star Katie Ledecky in the 800 and 1,500-meter freestyle races?
For now, however, it’s hard to miss just how unusual these Games promise to be. The pretty National Stadium is an isolated militarized area surrounded by huge barricades. The roads around it are closed and businesses closed.
Inside, the feeling of sanitized and locked quarantine endures. Fans, who would normally be shouting for their country and mingling with people from all over the world, have been banned, leaving only a carefully selected contingent of journalists, officials, athletes and participants.
The Olympics often face opposition, but there is also usually a pervasive sense of national pride. Japan’s resentment centers on the belief that it was heavily armed to house – forced to pay billions and risk the health of a largely unvaccinated and deeply tired public – so the IOC could raise its billions of dollars. media revenues.
“Sometimes people ask why the Olympics exist, and there are at least two answers. One is that they are an unrivaled global showcase of the human spirit as it relates to sport, and the other is that they are an unrivaled global showcase of the human spirit as it relates to aristocrats. who get 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 last year and a half seems lyrical in its twists and turns.
A once-in-a-century pandemic forces the postponement of the 2020 version of the Games. A shootout of scandals (sexism and other allegations of discrimination and corruption, overspending, incompetence, intimidation) is taking place. The Japanese, meanwhile, look puzzled as an Olympics seen as a bad idea by many scientists take shape.
“We will continue to try to have this dialogue with the Japanese people knowing that we will not be 100% successful. That would be setting the bar too high, ”said IOC President Thomas Bach. “But we are also convinced that once the Japanese see Japanese athletes perform at these Olympics – hopefully successfully – the attitude will become less emotional.”
Japanese athletes, freed from onerous travel rules and able to train more normally, can indeed enjoy a nice boost over their rivals in some cases, even without fans. Judo, a sport in which Japan has traditionally been a powerhouse, kicks off on Saturday, giving the host nation an early chance for gold.
Yet if it is possible that “people come out of the Olympics feeling good about themselves and that Japan has hosted the Games against all odds,” Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University of Tokyo, believes that such a scenario “is far too optimistic.
The reality, for now, is that the delta variant of the virus continues to rise, 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 almost daily reports of positive virus cases in the so-called Olympic bubble that is supposed to separate Olympic participants from the worried and skeptical Japanese population.
For one night, at least, the glamor and hopeful message of the opening ceremonies can distract many viewers around the world from the surrounding angst and anger.
“But for the Japanese people, who will have a much more direct experience and feel the empty stadiums and the eerie contrast between this spectacle and their own continued struggles to control the pandemic more viscerally, it may not have the same impact.” said Daniel Sneider, senior lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University.
Foster Klug, news director for Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand at The Associated Press, has been covering Asia since 2005. More from AP: https://apnews.com/hub / 2020-tokyo-olympics and https: / /twitter.com/AP_Sports