The 2020 Olympics will be memorable, but not in the way Japan hoped

Even if disaster is averted, a sense of national renewal will remain elusive

Clouds gathered over  Komazawa Stadium in Tokyo as the Olympic torch arrives on July 9. Due to the pandemic, the traditional public relay has been replaced by a small ceremony behind closed doors from the stadium. Protesters outside were holding signs reading “Protect Lives, Not the Olympics” and “Put Out the Olympic Torch”. As Kyogoku Noriko, an official, put it, “Now is not the time for a festival.” More enthusiastic spectators lined up on a nearby walkway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the flame through the rafters of the stadium. For Honma Taka, an office worker, the torch offered “a little light in the dark”.

Mr Honma longingly recalled a brighter day at the same park eight years earlier, when he joined thousands of others in celebrating as Tokyo won the right to host the games. Abe Shinzo, the then Prime Minister of Japan, said he was happier than he had been when he became Prime Minister. Mr Abe saw the Olympics as a chance to give credit to his bullish slogan: “Japan is back”. He hoped the games would help the country emerge from its gloom after decades of economic stagnation, population decline and devastating natural disasters. The games, says Taniguchi Tomohiko, Mr Abe’s special adviser, were seen as a source of “a scarce commodity: hope for the future.”

Grand designs had a powerful precedent in the previous Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Barely two decades after the defeat of World War II, these games have come to encapsulate both the rebirth of Japan and its return to Japan. global community. Tokyo, reduced to ashes by the American bombings, is embellished. New roads and railways, including the first shinkansen, or high-speed train, were built. “There was a feeling in the 1960s that everyday life was getting richer: today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today – and the Olympics have become a symbol of that,” Togo explains. Kazuhiko, a former ambassador who was a student. at the time. The excitement left a lasting impression on a generation, including Mr Abe, who recalled his childhood memories of 1964 when Tokyo won the bid for this year’s games.

Without the pandemic, the excitement may well have materialized again. The current Tokyo Olympics have had their fair share of controversies, from an over-budgeted stadium to the rank sexism of the (now deceased) head of the organizing committee. A sporting event would not be enough to solve Japan’s problems either. But the games were shaping up to be a source of pride. Tens of thousands of young Japanese had signed up to volunteer. Japan planned to host 40 million foreigners in 2020, when the games were originally scheduled. Tourists would have found an immaculately clean, safe and well-run metropolis. Akita Hiroyuki, commentator for Nikkei, a Japanese daily, believes that the Olympics could have been a “white ship” which catalyzed the country to “wake up and open up”. (The Americans who forced Japan to open up to the world in the 19th century arrived in the “Black Ships”.)

Instead, the games will take place without fans, foreign or domestic, in a city in a state of emergency. Ito Yuko, one of the fans gathered outside Komazawa Stadium, lamented that the mood was “200% different” from 1964, when she first fell in love with the Olympics. Rather than coming together for the games, Japan was torn apart by them. Recent polls show that up to 80% of Japanese did not want them to move forward this year.

The feeling that national leaders are dragging a reluctant population into disaster has led to comparisons not to the previous Tokyo Olympics, but to the war that preceded them. Even Emperor Naruhito, who hardly ever talks about politically sensitive issues, has raised concerns about the games continuing.

Opposition to the Olympics stems only in part from fears of covid-19. Japan has handled the pandemic well by global standards, with just 15,000 deaths; Tokyo has only recorded eight deaths linked to covid-19 so far this month. But many Japanese believe that success is due to ordinary people who have behaved responsibly and made sacrifices in their personal lives, while the government stubbornly persists in a risky business. “It’s not just the health crisis, but the democratic crisis, it’s the lack of accountability,” says Nakano Koichi of Sophia University.

Many fulminate that the interests of sponsors, TV networks and the International Olympic Committee (CIO) seem to be more important than those of the Japanese people. The fact that games have progressed despite public opinion shows that they are “not for the people”, but for “the people to whom the money flows,” says Miyakawa Taku, a software engineer who joined the company. demonstration in front of the Komazawa stadium.

Things could go wrong. A covid-19 outbreak in the Olympic Village could prevent events from taking place and leave competitions with asterisks in the history books. A careless member of the press or an official delegation could sneak in and sow a bigger epidemic among the Japanese public. Athletes in the developing world could bring home a more infectious strain of the virus, turning the games into a global super-spread event. Such a fiasco would reinforce the sense of Japan’s decline and leave the public more wary of engaging with the outside world.

Japan could also be successful in keeping the virus mostly under control and the sport on schedule. Rather, running the games under such difficult circumstances could serve as a reminder of Japan’s ability to overcome adversity. Either way, the legacy of these Olympics will be disputed. “If it was a photo, you could say that the frame itself has become rotten,” said Sakaue Yasuhiro, sports historian at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. “The photo may turn out to be beautiful, but it’s always surrounded by this rotten frame.” ■

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Rings on the ropes”

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