Fear, always that same tug of fear as the gates swing open to this epic circus, the host city whistling its optimistic tune, even if paint is still wet and concrete still being mixed.
Fear of terrorism, fear of the heat, fear of scoundrel biochemists, fear of the always wildly spiralling costs, fear that at the end of it all, these Olympic Games might not be declared “best ever” in that casual, closing act of self-aggrandisement from an IOC President.
Those are just the conventional anxieties on the first morning of a new Olympiad. Factor in the global pandemic and a local population broadly outraged that this goes ahead with their city under state of emergency restrictions and Tokyo right now must feel like the world’s loneliest theme park.
Some 11,000 athletes are pouring into a supposedly bio-secure bubble in which mask-wearing, daily testing and a heavily policed, risk-averse environment will – for most – be their experience of life as Olympians.
For media, the sense of a tightrope walk, crystallised with this week’s revelation that all members of the BBC Scotland crew would have to submit to 14 days of self-isolation in their hotel rooms having been identified as close contacts of a passenger who tested positive for Covid on their flight to Japan.
Ordinarily, there’s a giddiness to these days, even in the face of inevitable local recognition that they’ve, essentially, been sold a pig in a poke. Claims that the economic benefits to a host city will outweigh the costs almost always amount to self-serving nonsense.
But even Thomas Bach is picking his words carefully here, reading the crowd.
Technically, the Games can only be cancelled by the IOC so, for the Japanese government to have done so, would have been to leave themselves liable for every last invoice with a ive-ringed connection. The Japanese people know that.
So selling this show either as some kind of exercise in cultural philanthropy or a grand, urban regeneration project benefitting future generations just won’t wash here. Tokyo’s patience feels wafer-thin.
Then again, that tends to be how this story rolls.
Every host city ends up picking some kind of fight with its own people as communities get exploited, displaced, over-run. The Russians cleansed Moscow of dissidents in 1980. Los Angeles cleared its homeless off the streets four years later. In 1988, the Korean police tried (and failed) to sanitise Seoul. Barcelona’s gypsies, Atlanta’s poor, Sydney’s aboriginals; they all found Olympic town a hostile, low-tolerance place.
Atlanta took the biscuit, painting its slums in soft, scatter-cushion colours while building a municipal jail as its first Olympic facility.
Even the then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, side-stepped declaring those 1996 Games as the “best ever” after two weeks of broiling chaos in the sun-bleached, characterless capital of Georgia.
Those Games are remembered today, above all, for that crude bomb going off in Centennial Park, killing two people.
The Athens Games in 2004, with a Friday the 13th Opening Ceremony, triggered the biggest security operation in peace-time Europe given the multiple of potential terrorist access points to the Greek capital. A large, white blimp hung over the city scanning everything that moved in the port of Piraeus with cameras so powerful, they could – reputedly – identify flaws in the enamel of your teeth.
What looked like a rigid fishing line dangled from the blimp, monitoring the air for chemicals.
With NATO ships patrolling the sea too, jet-fighters in the sky and us scribbling reprobates under machine gun protection in the main press centre, it was easy to miss the charms of Olympia even against a backdrop of the Acropolis.
Beijing shut down its power plants and factories and halved the traffic on its roads to try and alleviate a chronic smog problem in 2008. And there were, inevitably, protests against China’s rotten human rights record, specifically its fingerprints on atrocities in places like Darfur, Tibet and Myanmar.
On the eve of those Games, I wrote: “In a forgetful world, the Games make perfect sense. For 17 days, they flood the corners of the globe with stories of grace, piety, fraud, idealism and, on occasion, epic gall. They fool and dwarf and enchant us. They manipulate people, selling political systems as blithely as a can of Coke.”
London 2012 was all about corporatism, airy symbolism and – we now know – a spectrum of dishonesty among the athletes that simply flew to another place. The ubiquitous city mayor, now Prime Minister, decorated the fortnight with his familiarly clownish presence while an official press release announced David Beckham as having urgent business in 10 Downing Street “to highlight a new drive at tackling global food shortage”.
That, you will gather, can be the tenor of Olympic communication. It is, in short, a rapacious market for bullshit.
The Rio Games were, palpably, imposed upon a local community already on intimate terms with the crippling legacy debt falling their way from the 2014 World Cup.
The people knew the script, you see. A TV backdrop of Copacabana, Christ the Redeemer or Sugarloaf Mountain might have rhymed with the PR brochure of a fantasy setting, but this show creaked like a rusting fairground ride. In fact, Irish Olympic council President Pat Hickey’s early morning arrest at his six-star hotel base for “crimes of touting, forming a cartel and illicit marketing” actually felt like a punch thrown by the Rio people against the IOC.
At the Opening Ceremony, his rising status within the Olympic ‘family’ had been recognised with a seat directly behind President Bach. The same ‘family’, naturally, chose to look the other way when he was being led away to prison.
And Tokyo in a pandemic?
As a journalist who covered the last six Olympiads, the temptation to see this as a reckless act of conceit on the IOC’s part, a potential monster super-spreader event at a time when the virus still has the world on tenterhooks is unavoidable.
But the Tokyo Olympic Games have run up a bill that could, it is feared, soar beyond £20 billion. They simply had to happen. So feel free to take offence at the sense of grand denial in Bach’s inevitably pompous opening ceremony address yesterday.
But there will be beautiful stories told these next few weeks too, human stories, stories that reflect the best of the human condition. Ireland’s 116-strong team is our biggest ever and, for many, this is their one chance of being Olympians.
With no fans, no families and an athletes’ village bleached of its customary energies, this won’t be the Olympic experience of their childhood dreams.
But they got there and will, forever more, carry the distinction of ‘Olympian’. Some may even come home to the chat-show circuit and the brief illusion that winning a medal might be life-changing. It seldom is.
But for the next fortnight, even in a city all but under curfew, they will know the eyes of the world are finally upon them.