Saturday, October 16

Rise or fall: can the turbulent Tokyo Olympics shine once the flame is lit? | Tokyo 2020 Olympics

TOAlmost every Olympic Games in the modern era has followed a narrative arc so precise that it could have coincided with a metronome. Joy when an offer is successful. Years of fear: spiraling costs, massive apathy, viruses, or terrorism. But then when the torchbearer climbs the steps at the end of the opening ceremony, there is usually a startling metamorphosis. Suddenly the negativity is softened or suppressed. Action takes over. And, for the next 17 days, billions are delighted with the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.

You are surely asking too much for history to repeat itself when it comes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But at least it can rhyme. These Games are arguably the most controversial since Moscow 1980, when the United States led a massive boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. How could they not be when, after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic, they will take place during a state of emergency in Tokyo, in the absence of fans and in the face of fierce opposition from the locals?

Even so, the organizers still believe that the narrative can be changed. First, by making sure the Games are safe for athletes and residents. And then trusting that the sheer intensity, drama, and majesty of the 33 Olympic sports will inevitably draw us, like moths to a flame, once again. They could still make it.

The star-studded lineup begins the first morning as Geraint Thomas seeks gold in the road cycling race and world record holder Adam Peaty begins the defense of his 100-meter breaststroke title. But the gold-plated action comes thick and fast during the opening weekend, with Naomi Osaka, the icon of these Games, and 13-time world swimming champion Caeleb Dressel, widely heralded as the next Michael Phelps, also competing. .

Then there’s American gymnast Simone Biles, arguably the greatest athlete of all, redefining the art of the possible with her incomprehensible combination of physics-defying grace, power, and bravery. The 24-year-old, who aspires to become both the oldest woman to win the full title in 50 years and the first to be a repeat champion during the same time period, begins her competition on the second day.

There will also be new sports, such as rock climbing, surfing, skateboarding, 3×3 basketball and karate, designed to make the Games appeal to younger audiences and different demographics. British eyes will focus on Sky Brown, 13, one of the youngest professional skaters in the world, who has a live shot at a medal.

But inevitably these Olympics will be very different for the athletes and the spectators. The initial plan was for Tokyo 2020 to be as groundbreaking as the 1964 Tokyo Games, which were hailed as the “science fiction” Olympics because of all the impressive technological innovations, including the use of computers for the first time and the streaming of live images. all over the world by satellite. Instead, 2020 will feel much more like the dystopian Olympics, with no fans in Tokyo or Fukushima and a 70-page “playbook” of spirit-draining rules that must be enforced.

A Tokyo resident expresses the opinion of many in preparation for the Olympics.
A Tokyo resident expresses the opinion of many in preparation for the Olympics. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama / EPA

The 11,000 competitors in the Games must, for example, eat alone, undergo daily tests and refrain from speaking in confined spaces, such as elevators, according to Covid rules. They have also been warned that they cannot speak to a driver in an official vehicle, and will face the threat of fines, disqualification, medal removal, and even deportation for repeated or “malicious” offenses.

It means that athletes won’t get the full Olympic experience, including greeting the world at the opening ceremony, competing in packed stadiums, and letting go of their hair at karaoke bars and tourist traps, but rather something more like watered down mush. However, Dame Katherine Grainger, who is traveling to Tokyo as part of the UK Sport delegation, insists the athletes are happy despite the current restrictions.

“In scale and grandeur, and everything around it, Tokyo 2020 will feel very small,” admits Grainger, who won five rowing medals for Team GB. “But the athletes I have talked to say that the important thing is to get there and compete. And if that means they don’t do the exciting plugins, that’s fine. Yes, the situation is not ideal. But ultimately, competition is at the center of it all. “

Last time in Rio, Team GB came second in the medal table behind the USA with 67 medals. Points of view have been set slightly lower for Tokyo, with a medal target of between 45 and 70. However, the 376-man team, which boasts more women than men for the first time in history, is expected. , perform strong.

Much of the focus will be on cyclist Laura Kenny, taekwondo player Jade Jones, T-shirt Helen Glover and equestrian rider Charlotte Dujardin, who are aiming to become the first British woman to win gold medals in three separate Olympics. . Dina Asher-Smith, for her part, has a real chance of becoming the first British woman to win an Olympic sprint title with a victory in the 100 or 200 meters.

Sadly, when they cross the line, the usual cheers, joy and elation that athletes would normally hear will disappear after a last minute decision to ban up to 10,000 spectators due to an increase in Delta variant cases. However, Dr Brian McCloskey, head of public health services in London 2012 and consultant to the IOC and Tokyo 2020, insists that such measures are necessary and will ensure that the Games do not become a high-profile event.

“The Games will be safe,” he says. “Of course there is no zero risk. There are no guarantees in this world when it comes to infectious diseases. But we have faced challenges with other Games before, such as the Zika virus in Rio 2016 and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which took place during the H1N1 pandemic. And what we have implemented in Tokyo is a series of measures to reduce risk that are unprecedented in scale and scope. “

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Of course, there are still many things that can go wrong. The number of positive Covid tests among Lions players in South Africa, as well as among England cricketers who played in the one-day series against Pakistan, is a testament to this. And the pandemic is not the only potential problem that worries organizers, given that in 2018 Japan suffered a month-long heat wave that saw highs of 41.1 ° C, the highest ever recorded in the country, and caused death. of 138 people.

Understandably, many in Japan continue to feel nauseous that the Games are taking place. Especially since the official cost of £ 11bn is more likely to double, according to government auditors. But the International Olympic Committee, which would have lost an estimated £ 3 billion in lost broadcast rights had the event been canceled, has gone ahead regardless.

It presents the restart of the pandemic as a “great festival of hope, resistance and solidarity”, and IOC President Thomas Bach also suggests that the Tokyo 2020 Games may be a “light at the end of the tunnel” for all humanity. . The next few weeks are likely to show whether those words were upbeat, prescient, or just a bad joke.

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