David McElhinney watches a global sporting spectacle turn sour
The Olympic crusade has finally landed in Tokyo with the belligerent International Olympic Committee (IOC) leading the vanguard.
And a crusade it certainly is; Japan hasn’t seen anything pursued with such dogmatic fervour since Jesuit missionaries were roaming through Kyushu with Bibles under their tunics. What is missing from the Tokyo 2020 crusade, however, are its travelling apostles.
Overseas spectators, who typically fuel the fanfare and feed the commercial beast at global sporting showcases, were officially barred from entering Japan during the Olympics in March. Now with the implementation of a new Covid-19-enforced state of emergency — Tokyo’s fourth, which took effect on July 12, the Olympics will be spectator-free in the capital and at selected venues across the country.
The protracted inbound travel bans of the past year have been damaging to Tokyo at the best of times. But this sword is cutting a little deeper: the government has dumped around ¥3 trillion (£20bn) into the Summer Games, and once harboured hopes they would attract up to 10m tourists.
Add to that widespread public opposition, ongoing protests and barbed online activism and a global community looking on with raised eyebrows, and it creates an unprecedented landscape for an event of this magnitude.
Perhaps Yoyogi Park best embodies the strangeness of Tokyo in the run-up to the Games.
In May, the government had been requesting citizens stay at home to prevent the spread of Covid-19 yet planned to erect ‘Live Sites’, or ad hoc public viewing areas for Tokyo 2020, in parks and plazas across Japan. After a petition to scrap the project notched up over 100,000 signatures, the Yoyogi Park venue was axed and reappropriated as a mass vaccination site.
I walked through the park on a drizzly Thursday afternoon watching corporate drones clasping umbrellas trudge towards their injections. Signs brandishing rules and prohibitions were pinned along the park’s walkways: “No Drinking”, “Keep Social Distancing”, and the rather bizarre “Gargle and hand washing after visiting”.
These Games were supposed to present Japan as one of the world’s greatest post-industrial superpowers with a carefree, par-excellence standard of living. But they have become the Olympics of austerity, with competitors having about as much freedom as those in a Roman gladiatorial arena.
That said, Tokyo is far from lifeless. The new state of emergency requests that bars and restaurants stop selling alcohol and close by 8pm.
But “request” is the operative word. Partly as a result of Japan’s militaristic past, the government is reluctant to impose restrictions that are absolute; abiding by them is optional. Evidently, only so many people are willing to voluntary imprison themselves or kneecap their livelihoods if there is no real punishment against it.
The streets of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ginza are crawling with consumers. The drinking and dining establishments still open all hours are wall-to-wall with revellers. The average person’s daily commute is as suffocating as ever: the only way to socially distance yourself on a Tokyo train right now would be to strap yourself to the roof.
The crowds are still here this summer, the difference is that they are almost exclusively Japanese residents, who are largely fed up with waxing and waning rules, and they’re not here for the upcoming sporting circus.
Ironically, as certain quarters of the city are becoming resigned to their Olympic fate, the official rhetoric is weakening.
With an outbreak of Covid-19 among staff in a hotel housing Olympians, and several positive cases among other athletes and staff on arrival to Japan, the cohort of Olympic Committees can no longer dodge the fact that their “safe and secure Olympics” moniker is wobbling on shaky foundations.
Though IOC chief Thomas Bach is still trying. In a recent video on the official IOC Media page, Bach gave a rather nauseating lecture on the need for solidarity just before he romped into a country that was telling him to stay put.
The former fencer then stabbed himself in the foot almost immediately after arriving in situ by referring to the locals as “Chinese” in his first press conference on Tokyo soil – one assumes his eye is already cast on next year’s Beijing Winter Games and its accompanying spoils.
Making matters worse, activists in Hiroshima called Bach’s visit to the atomic bomb memorials on Friday an affront to the lives of the survivors and the fallen. But on he went in the name of “peace”.
Well before the Games became public enemy number one, they had captured the national zeitgeist. New stadiums and retail complexes were built to be shown off during them. New travel campaigns and commercial ventures were launched to align with them. New train stations were constructed to accommodate the influx of visitors. But the perception has changed.
If we were under any illusions about who these Games are really for, they have surely been dispelled. Ostentatious Olympic advertising campaigns featuring the Games major benefactors cling to lampposts, hang from skyscrapers, and illuminate screens across the city. The Tokyo 2020 brand is far more pervasive than Japan’s Rugby World Cup brand was in 2019, and so are the commercial interests behind it.
I witnessed this recently at an Olympic torch relay event in Sendai City, where I was herded into a media pen with groups of cameramen fighting for space like rabid dogs over a T-bone steak.
Even their high-definition moneyshots of the flame held aloft did little to obscure the fact that we were in a virtually empty arena watching children in Coca Cola T-shirts sing a ditty about inspiration or some other such superlative being flung around by the Olympic Gold Partners. It was like when a movie plays 15 seconds of an upbeat chorus to imbue a scene with a sense of energy it otherwise patently lacks.
That is not to say the Olympics are dead. They are very much alive. But the curtain has been pulled back, exposing the nature of the beast. Of all the legacies Tokyo 2020 can leave, this will be the most enduring.