TOas it is now, so it has always been. Eighteen months after the first modern Olympic Games, in Athens in 1896, the entire organizing committee resigned en masse because they thought the job was impossible. The country was, in the words of Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis, “sadly bankrupt.” He told the fledgling International Olympic Committee that the economic situation meant there was no way the Games could go ahead. The founder of the IOC, Pierre de Coubertin, listened but did not listen. Instead, he went to work, cajoling, cajoling, politicking, pushing through it all.
“For those who followed the preliminaries closely, it seemed certain that the Games would be a disastrous failure,” wrote British competitor George Robertson, who participated in the album. “This was not the case.” Coubertin obtained the support and financial backing of the Greek royal family. And Trikoupis lost a general election in 1895, to a rival who had publicly endorsed the Games.
So the Games were born out of uncertainty, delivered by a stubborn and relentless IOC, despite public doubts, political concerns, and mounting costs. The stubborn self-assurance of the IOC has seen the Olympics for the past 125 years, through two world wars, three canceled Games, through the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico, when the government killed more than 200 protesters. At the olympic games; the Munich massacre in 1972, when the Black September organization took nine members of the Israeli team hostage; through the $ 2 billion debt left by Montreal 1976, the reciprocal Cold War boycotts of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, the doping scandals of Seoul 1988 and London 2012, the Atlanta 1996 bombing, corruption, the waste and dispossession of Rio 2016.
Right the way to these Tokyo Games. The IOC has tried to compare them to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, which were held at the end of the Spanish flu pandemic. But nothing in living memory has ever been something like that. They are throwing a party in the middle of a pandemic, they have 100,000 guests, 11,000 athletes and 79,000 officials, support personnel and journalists, from more than 200 countries, flying to a city trapped in a state of emergency, in a country where only 22% of the population is fully vaccinated, a country that is simply not ready for these Games.
It is happening despite objections from Japan’s frontline medical workers, who have had to divert vital resources to it, objections from Japan’s doctors union, which has expressed concern about a new ‘Olympic strain’ of the virusand the objections of major newspapers such as the Asahi Shimbun, which spoke out against the Games in a recent editorial. And it is happening despite the wishes of the Japanese public.
A wide range of surveys over a long period of time has shown that the majority of people in Japan think that the Games should be canceled or postponed, and that it is impossible to hold them safely. The current president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, is relentless. “You cannot make a decision regarding an Olympic Games, which are being watched by billions of people around the world, that athletes around the world yearn for, with a poll,” said Bach. Presumably you decide by decree of the IOC.
Privately and publicly, Bach has been assuring IOC members that despite the winds of opinion, the Games have a long list of corporate sponsors signed up to support them. “If they didn’t have confidence in our management of the Games and the Olympic movement, they would never make these long-term agreements.” That was before one of those major sponsors, Toyota, announced that it was pulling its Games-related ads from television. Executives from two more sponsors, Panasonic and Procter & Gamble, have also confirmed that, like Toyota, they would not be attending the opening ceremony.
Here in Tokyo, there is a palpable sense that the city is holding its breath, waiting to see the Games unfold. There have already been 87 cases of Covid among Olympic visitors, and the number is increasing every day. Despite rigorous testing, quarantine and social distancing protocols, experts have already said that the Olympic bubble is “broken”.
Bach, like Coubertin, goes on, convinced that in the end everything will be fine. The cycles of public opinion in the cities that host the Olympics are as predictable as the tides. Academic researchers have drawn a pattern It begins with a feeling of pride in being selected, followed by opposition and apathy, and ends with happiness and euphoria.
That’s what happened in 1896. Those Games not only succeeded, they succeeded, Robertson wrote, even beyond Coubertin’s expectations. They put on a spectacular performance. Spyridon Louis, a Greek water carrier, won the first marathon, he ran from the ancient battlefield along the coast to the Panathenaic Stadium, where a crowd of 80,000 awaited him and the horse messengers who came forward to provide updates on the race.
When Louis entered the stadium, “the excitement and enthusiasm were simply indescribable,” Coubertin wrote. It was “one of the most extraordinary places I can remember.” The victory didn’t just make Louis, but the Games.
Now, again, the IOC finds itself relying on athletes to save the Games, to sweep the world away with the grace, power, speed, strength, beauty and excitement of Olympic competition. Because it is still the biggest and best show in all of sport.
No matter the budget overruns, the bribery, the corruption and deception, the waste, the way you sweep the homeless off the streets before it starts, the fact that they are making their volunteers work 13 hours a day and telling them to not getting a second dose of the vaccine because they don’t want to miss shifts. Forget all the dirty work of building the stage, here’s the show.
That is the bet that the IOC always makes, and it has always paid off. But this time, it has more than ever. For the past year, athletes have been the IOC’s only good reason these Games have to keep going (it has a few hundred million more, most of them provided by US television networks, but it has been less interested in discussing them in public).
“They will enter the Olympic Stadium on July 23 with all their pride and sending an important message to the whole world,” said Bach. “A message of resilience, of Olympic passion, of Olympic values such as solidarity and peace.”
Only there will be no cheering crowds, not 80,000 in the stadium. The IOC hopes it will work well on television anyway, that something beautiful and inspiring will emerge from this, that we will see performances in the next fortnight that say more about the magic of the Olympics than Bach trivia ever could.
You still have to wonder if it will be worth it. They usually calculate the cost of the Olympics in money; this can also be judged by the number of deaths it leads to. Normally, we talk about the sacrifices athletes have made to compete in the Games; this time, we can talk about the sacrifices the country made to allow them to do so.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism