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Tokyo’s unpopular Olympic Games lumbers towards opening ceremony with shrug and sadness

The Independent
The Independent

To be in Tokyo this week is to operate in a state of perpetual quarantine even beyond the mandatory three-day hotel room isolation the thousands of media who arrived on Monday or Tuesday are currently undertaking. If, like many, this is your first trip to Japan, moving around the city feels like that specific privilege of losing deep into a game show. Happy to be there but pained by the sight of what you could have won.

Even the little you see of the outside speaks of a distinct way of being. There’s a familiarity to the streets and architecture that suddenly takes a figurative left turn into the alternative approach that keeps these parts interesting. The Bunkyo City ward, for instance, breaks from winding side streets into the Tokyo Dome City amusement park. And once the awe subsides, you are left thinking, “sure, why not?” Why wouldn’t a city have an amusement park slap bang in the middle of its throng? A slide down the side of the Shard. A rollercoaster wrapped around the Eiffel Tower.

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It is one of the great Japanese qualities: to take something, make it their own, and thereby turn it into something truly unique that works just as well. Urban planning is one. Perhaps Neapolitan pizza is another – a food unmatched for gatekeepers and yet local establishments here have earned glowing approval and accreditations from institutions in Naples for upholding tradition through adaptation.

Thus, the great shame is we will not truly get to see Tokyo’s unique twist on these Olympic Games . The touches to make it their own, the flourishes to showcase the very best of Japan to visitors who were supposed to be here, inquisitive and in their millions.

There remain slivers of what might have been, even with Covid-19 rampant. What little of the hospitality to be enjoyed has been generously warm. Any sense of civil unrest is not outwardly noticeable though that, in part, might be down to a general public knowing the ones walking around the streets looking lost in lanyards (and a little sweaty) are the least to blame for the current predicament.

“Public opinion in Japan is neither uniformly opposed to nor enthusiastic about the Tokyo Games,” says Yuki Shiraito, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “A recent opinion poll shows that while 30 per cent of its respondents want the Games to be cancelled, 39 per cent say it is OK that the event will be held without spectators and 26 per cent want the organiser to let at least some spectators in.”

As with any poll, the framing of the questions is worth considering, especially relating to an Olympics that, even when awarded to the city back in 2013, was met with general ambivalence. “It may be because voters generally do not have strong and consistent preferences on this issue as is the case with many other specific political issues,” Shiraito tells The Independent . “On the other hand, the broader attitudes to the government’s handling of the Covid situation in Japan have been consistently negative since the beginning of the pandemic.”

That sense of shrug and sadness underpinned Wednesday’s action at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium. Part of the healing process after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami caused a radiation leak, was a softball opener between Japan and Australia in front of packed stands. An 8-1 home win was the only comfort, scored by the kind of empty silence the area hoped was a thing of the past.

The most dispiriting aspect is never has a Games needed to dive into the warm sanctuary of a bottomless pool of sport. That daily festival of notable stars punctuated by unfamiliar names thriving at obscure pursuits to grab the attention. Or at least distract from Japan’s fourth coronavirus state of emergency or countless states of address from IOC dignitaries and associates who insist on filling the pockets of dead space right now with their own agendas and ignorance.

Much like Twitter’s unwritten rule of ensuring you are not the main story on any given day, this week looks set to provide us with a full set of clowns. Thursday’s gong was sealed by Australia Olympic Committee president John Coates when he ordered Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to attend Friday’s opening ceremony in a live press conference on Wednesday that was celebrating Brisbane’s confirmation as 2032 host .

Palaszczuk’s wariness was like most of those in Tokyo and the rest of the world, whose ambitions have been tamed by Covid-19. Her overseas drew derision from back home, and her reluctance to show her face on Friday says something for her sensitivity to the matter, even if she’s already made the longest part of the journey. Coates’ behaviour was more in keeping with the trend exuded by Olympic officials this week, starting in earnest with IOC president Thomas Bach attending a 40-person reception party in Tokyo on Sunday evening. If such brazen disregard is not to be the legacy of these Games, a lot of heavy lifting, running and jumping are required from its most important component parts.

Athletes are desperate to get going, even if they are constantly fighting their own distracting battles, such as keeping their safest spaces safe. On Wednesday, another 12 positive Covid-19 cases were confirmed – including two athletes in the village – bringing the total positives among Olympic personnel to 91 since 1 July.

Many more identified as close contacts have found already restricted preparations hampered further. Those here are trying to narrow their focus amid all the protocols and distractions. Their nature is to always believe even when doubt prevails, and all their robotic pre-talk of fine-tuning, form, and the adjusted trope of an opportunity that takes five years to come around, has been some comfort.

Whether this will all be worth it is a different question entirely. And finding the answer does not need much soul-searching. The toll it has taken on such a welcoming nation is argument enough.

The prevailing sense is it will be generations before another Japanese city bids for the Games. The sense of betrayal from politicians in the country towards the IOC has been exacerbated by the plummeting of public opinion. Rarely have the cons of hosting the Olympics or the intentions of the IOC been so exposed. What Japanese officials have experienced over the last 12 months since the first suspension has grossly outweighed any smidgen of political capital gained when Tokyo’s name was announced eight years ago.

That optimism belongs to a different time and a much simpler world. Here, in this one on Friday, the opening ceremony will bring with it a sense of relief. That by “officially” beginning, we get that little closer to that all being over.

The only reassurance is, soon, the Games will be handed over to its competitors. The ones who value it most: what it stands for and how nourishing it can be, even in these times of great strife. Those of us still invested need to grab on to their optimism. The next 19 days will only be meaningful through their accomplishments.

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