TOKYO – On Thursday night, in a practically empty stadium under a nearly full moon, the Olympic Games in Japan never started.
At 7:15 pm, the Japanese men’s soccer team entered the field without applause or cheers. COVID-19 has basically made these Games without spectators. Most of the parking spots around the Tokyo stadium were empty. The pulsating noise outside came from the evening cicadas. When the speakers finished playing the national anthem of Japan, the applause did not reach the level that could be heard in a high school musical. During gameplay, you could hear camera shutters capturing moments that Japan is eager to forget.
Two years ago, hundreds of local children and their parents gathered in this very field, holding blue signs and forming the words: “One year to go.” The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic mascots, Miraitowa and Someity, were also there, along with robotic versions of the mascots created by Toyota. No one had any idea that one year would turn into two; that the Olympics would become anathema to the Japanese; that Toyota would withdraw its advertising to distance itself from the event; or that the crowd that day would be one of the largest at these Olympics.
Japan won its first match, 1-0 over South Africa, but the country has already lost interest in Olympic joy. What’s the fun of hosting an event that no one can attend? Without a pandemic, the building should have been moving, with fans full from everywhere. But it felt like someone unplugged the Olympics. When Japan missed a scoring opportunity in the 13th minute, there were no gasps; when it failed another two minutes later, only a few were left. When Takefusa Kubo finally broke through in the 71st minute, scoring with his left foot at the far post, he ran down the field and glided in celebration, but it was like watching a game in silence.
The Olympics are a heavyweight for any citizen, and they are rarely worth it. They typically cost billions before they start and leave abandoned places shortly after they finish. But the Olympics themselves can be magical. They really bring people together, and that doesn’t mean in the loaded and intellectually dishonest way: implying that differences don’t matter anymore, and that suddenly everyone loves each other and will do it forever. They literally bring people together. Memories form and harden. There is nothing like the feeling that everyone is watching what happens in your neighborhood. And competing for your country on his country is the rarest of sporting pleasures.
Forget about the date line at the top of this column. This soccer game could have taken place anywhere. Tokyo, Kyoto, Topeka, a Hollywood set. It wouldn’t have made any difference.
The Japanese are no longer invited to their own party. Even sadder, but understandable: They don’t want the party at all. Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu spoke after his team’s victory about how much he would have liked to have fans in this game. But with the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, most people here wanted the games to be canceled entirely, to limit human damage.
Japan is not a powerhouse in men’s soccer at the level of Germany or Brazil, but it is a tough outing in any tournament. This game would have been wild with a full house of 48,000 the night before the Opening Ceremony. Instead, he was physically and emotionally empty.
This could explain how unpopular the Games are here:
The Tokyo Stadium is actually called Ajinomoto Stadium, as part of a naming rights agreement with a large food company. The name was temporarily changed because the IOC does not recognize anyone else’s endorsement deals. Ajinomoto was hardly going to complain; The company has been an official partner of the Japan Olympic Committee for a long time. In 2016 it was introduced as an official partner of Tokyo 2020. Many elite Japanese athletes train at the Ajinomoto National Training Center.
Last month, Ajinomoto said it would not run any Olympic commercials in July. (He delayed a decision on commercials in August.)
The Olympics are toxic here now. This week the IOC awarded the 2032 Olympics to Brisbane and logically there should have been an international push to hold those Games here, to give the Japanese the fan-filled and presumably pandemic-free Olympics they planned to host. But that momentum would have had to start in Japan, and it didn’t. The idea of hosting other Olympics is unappealing.
Most Japanese don’t want this.
But if you looked closely here on Thursday, you could see how much they wanted it.
In what would have been a wheelchair seat, there were instead dozens of synthetic vines. Each had notes on them from Japanese schoolchildren.
Several included the Japanese word ganbatte., It is commonly used in sports and captures the national spirit: fight hard. One, with a drawing of Mt. Fuji, read: Let’s have a fun competition using all your strength. Another, with a drawing of a swimmer: I am cheering from home. Everyone at the Olympics, please do your best. In another, a child drew a picture of the mascots that received such applause in this building in 2019, in another world, when Japan was eager to host the Olympics. Two weeks away.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.