It’s 45 days to go before one of the strangest and most beleaguered Olympic Games of our lifetimes takes place.
For 95.5 percent of us, across the globe, watching it on TV is the only way we will ever experience it; just half a percent of the Olympic audience will ever see an Olympic event live. The TV audience is paramount, and the broadcasters have the final say on all kinds of things to do with the Summer and Winter Games.
For many people watching; will it be very different? With the camera angles changed to de-emphasise just how few people are in the venues (exactly how many will be there is still unclear), and crowd noise undoubtedly dubbed on, it will be, for many people, a very similar experience.
The revenue generated from selling the TV rights funds the IOC, and (as the IOC very much like to point out) funds all kinds of Olympic sports too, including much of the operating budget of World Archery and many other national and international federations. Much of the Olympic sporting landscape in the modern era relies on this revenue, and ultimately the Olympics supports an ecosystem hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide.
I don’t need to recount the events of the last 16 or so months; they have impacted every single one of us. The rescheduled Summer Olympics, delayed from 2020, were intended to be held in a world that had brought the COVID pandemic under control. When they were postponed, there was an optimism that Tokyo 2020 would go ahead in some kind of relative ‘normality’. Of course, that’s not the case. The Western world is a shifting mess of lockdowns, vaccination programs, third, fourth and fifth waves of variant viruses, quarantine procedures, strained public health systems, and all the rest that the coronavirus has dragged along with it on its never-ending journey around the well-connected world.
The Olympics ultimately relies on certainty; it’s an (almost) immovable feast. The incredulous full-steam-ahead response as the virus took hold in spring last year was only stopped by the announcement that many major nations would officially not send a squad, beginning the snowball process that led to postponement.
The IOC had good reason to be confident, apparently, the start time of an Olympic event has never moved before, and it has been 76 years since the last cancellation, due to war in 1944. Viruses had threatened before, and been found wanting.
The modern Games is now so big and so complicated and so expensive partly because it is has to begin on a particular date. Most large public projects are not delivered on schedule. The Olympics is, and if one aspect of it is not on track, the only solution is to throw immense amounts of resources at it until it is. Many aspects of Rio 2016, not helped by major budget problems and a general Brazilian disposition to do things at the last minute, were barely finished in time. (The 2016 Paralympics almost didn’t take place at all.)
As of this writing, a narrative has developed in the press that the Japanese government and the IOC are determined to press on with the Games in the teeth of a uncertain pandemic and hugely negative public opinion. Most people have cited a a poll (originally commissioned by newspaper Kyodo News) which showed that 35.3% of people were in favour of cancelling it, and 44.8% were in favour of postponing it once more. (Never mind that postponing it again has been categorically ruled out by all as politically, logistically, and financially impossible.)
This has been conflated by several other media outlets as ‘80% of the Japanese public want Games cancelled.’ Public opinion not being behind the Games beforehand is a distinct feature of the recent Olympic landscape, London 2012 being a prime example. Opinion polls are not a good guide to Olympic futures.
Much of the focus in the Japanese press is the claim that the 60,000 or so athletes, journalists, technicians, broadcasters, judges, coaches and federation people pitching up will be bringing a bunch of coronavirus variants to their islands, turning the Olympics into a superspreader event. Incidentally, this number of ‘essential personnel’ is down from the normal Olympic overseas attendance of around 180,000 – which gives you an idea of just how many hangers-on there normally are.
None of these articles acknowledge the extensive steps being taken to specifically make sure that this is not the case, as detailed in the much-vaunted (but under-promoted) IOC ‘playbooks‘ for all attendees. No one going will be admitted into Japan if they haven’t had two doctor-certified negative COVID tests in the preceding three days. No one going will be allowed to go sightseeing, use public transport, go into a bar or a restaurant, or indeed, do anything apart from go between hotel and venue to work or compete (denied of all overseas revenue, Tokyo’s hoteliers and restauranteurs are unsurprisingly furious and are adding to the cancellation chorus).
Essentially, the Olympics will become – as far as possible – its own bubble, completely separate from the Japanese public. This has upset many commentators, who point out that the spirit of the Games is best displayed when the circus connects directly with the public. They are mostly right. One of my favourite stories from London 2012 involved a gold medallist taking the Underground on his way out to town. Some of the more myopic takes whine that well-heeled tourists won’t be able to spend money at the gift shop, or superstar athletes won’t be able to get their selfies.
The IOC hasn’t covered itself in glory here; sending John Coates, one of its blunter instruments, out to announce that the Games could be held even if Japan was under a state of emergency, which only ramped up the chorus to get rid of it. It seems like a lot of the gung-ho rhetoric from all participants is to not let a single crack appear that might offer the ‘let’s-cancel-it’ gang a way in.
Also, none of the current press articles are also calling for the cancellation of the PGA tour, or Wimbledon, or the football Euros, or the Tour de France, or any of the many other sporting events due to take place this summer. None of them points out the large number of sporting events that have already taken place without incident (none of which is nearly as complex as an Olympics, of course).
But voices as loud as the New York Times have decided to floridly jump on the bandwagon anyway: “The I.O.C. oversees the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructure in the world. The group appears to have fallen under the spell of its own congenital impunity. Pressing ahead with the Olympics risks drinking poison to quench our thirst for sport. The possibility of a superspreader catastrophe is not worth it for an optional sporting spectacle.”
Perhaps the most bitter take has come from Japanese Olympic Committee member Kaori Yamaguchi, who has weighed in that Japan been “cornered” into staging the Olympic and Paralympics – even as she conceded that they would be going ahead:
“Were not the Olympics supposed to be a festival of peace? … It begins with tenaciously engaging in dialogue with people who hold diverse views. If we abandon this process, then the Olympics have no meaning.”
“The opposite of peace is a hard-line, stubborn approach based on the view that ‘people may be saying all kinds of things, but once the Olympics start it’ll be fine. What will these Olympics be for and for whom?”
“I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel. It would require too much energy to make and follow through with such a decision. We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now.”
“We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not.”
The problem is that “engaging in dialogue with people who hold diverse views.” is a very reasonable thing to do during the bidding and planning phase of a Games. When the chips are down and you’ve got to execute the operational phase, that’s exactly what you don’t do. It’s such an immense and complicated thing, involving such Brobdingnagian logistics and hundreds of thousands of people, it’s either go or no-go. You’re either helping it to be a safe, successful event, or you’re not.
The big circus that everybody enjoys on their TV every two or four years comes about because of the boring stuff involving spreadsheets and trucks and warehouses and accountants and shipping manifests and scaffolders and electricians and technicians and builders which takes seven years to organise. The die is cast for Tokyo. It’s either fully underway, or not at all. It can’t stop for a friendly chat.
So it’s happening. Personally, I believe it will be safe; not being a public health expert, luckily I don’t have to stake my reputation on it. There are real risks and I don’t want to play down the seriousness of any of them.
But Yamaguchi is right about one thing; in the Faustian pact that the Japanese government has got itself into, something will be missing from the whole thing: who will these Olympics be for?
With just a few weeks to go in Rio, the prediction from all sides was that it would be a disaster, with the blame laid at Brazil’s door. In the end, despite a couple of small mishaps, the Games went ahead as planned, and the TV audiences were healthy. (A huge number of volunteers quit in Rio as well, same as is happening now.) But this situation feels different. It is not business as usual. If the IOC and the Japanese don’t get this absolutely right, it risks the entire circus going into long-term decline, if audiences are turned off.
An announcement was made this week about the podiums, part of the fully overshadowed publicity buildup. A tiny corner of the Olympic design world, made of recycled plastics, it was a representation of the minimalist (if conservative) design style that has characterised these Games, long before coronavirus upended everything. I think they are smart and modern and forward-looking, and normally I love this kind of design minutiae that adds to the flavour of the whole dish. But recycled podiums are not what is needed right now.
Presenting the Victory Ceremony podiums of the Olympic and Paralympic Games! 😍— #Tokyo2020 (@Tokyo2020) June 3, 2021
For the first time ever, they are made of recycled plastic from Japanese household products. ♻️#Toyko2020 pic.twitter.com/rCqtcycMzw
What is needed right now is to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese and wider public, indeed the whole world. To convince people that they are worth doing. This is going to take some humility on behalf of the IOC and some brilliant PR from the Japanese government. Neither has shown a great deal of aptitude for either of these recently. And there’s only a month and a half left.