This summer’s Olympics offer a chance to celebrate amidst challenging times
The President also extended his support for the many challenges faced by the world’s sportsmen amidst the coronavirus pandemic, saying, “imagine all those Olympians who work for four years, four years for one shot and all of a sudden that opportunity gets lost.” Washington’s empathetic message will be balm for the soul of all those athletes and organisers working tirelessly to ensure that the Games begin on July 23rd.
In drawing attention to those athletes who have ardently awaited the ultimate sports competition one year longer than usual after it was the first Olympiad to ever be postponed, Biden lighted on an important truth. The Olympic games are all about the Olympians. These athletes undergo gruelling training regimes, adhere to strict timetables and subsist on stringent diets every day of their lives in order to reach their chance to shine under the floodlights. Five long years have passed since the Rio 2016 Olympics, and for athletes such as 39-year-old tennis player Roger Federer, the Tokyo Games could be the last chance they have to take home gold. The Olympics is the apex of the careers of over 15,000 athletes and tens of thousands of coaches, staff members, judges and officials. The stakes are vertigo-inducingly high even during a ‘normal’ Olympic setting, but this year the pandemic has upped the ante.
Fortunately, the choice of location is serendipitous since Japan has received international praise for its successful handling of the pandemic. True to form, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) released a comprehensive 33-page ‘playbook’ last week to ensure the safety of the Games’ participants which called for health checks to be carried out before arrival, regular Covid tests once on site and, of course, obligatory masks, social restrictions and contact tracing in the Olympic Village. Although it remains to be seen if spectators will be allowed in the stadium, this is a moot point for many athletes who are accustomed to empty stadiums and recorded cheers.
The Head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, has called Tokyo the “best prepared Olympics in history", particularly given the control and prevention tools at our disposal that didn’t exist before, including vaccines. On this front, some countries have announced plans to vaccinate their athletes beforehand, and while vaccination is not a precondition for participation, the Japanese will roll out their own vaccine programme in February, with plenty of time to spare before the Games. The 32nd Olympiad will certainly be unusual but the athletes are ready for the additional challenge if it means they can compete. Australian swimmer Cate Campbell insisted that, “as long as the Olympics are on that’s all that we care about; there’s a swimming pool and the starting blocks and the starter. It’s honestly all we need.”
Unfortunately, however, the JOC has had to face off with a sceptical international press ever since the Games were postponed. While media attention surrounding the Olympics is by no means unusual, the Tokyo edition has had a particularly rough ride in recent weeks following the publication of an anonymous statement by the Times of London which alleged the Olympics will be cancelled by the Japanese government. The rumour was swiftly rebutted by the JOC as “categorically untrue”, with the IOC joining in to support their Tokyo counterparts. Adding insult to injury, the head of the JOC, Yoshiro Mori was forced to step down following a series of sexist comments he made in a presser.
Citius - Altius - Fortius
Olympic runner Carl Lewis wisely warned in 2016 that “scandals, real and hyped, dominate what we’re hearing about the Olympics, sensationalized stories fueled by the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and even geopolitics” but “as spectators and fans, we shouldn’t be tearing down host countries but raising them up”. This recent scandal mongering overlooks, however, the role sports have in bridging divisions. As one American diplomat put it, “the unifying nature of sports draws people together and provides opportunities to celebrate where none would otherwise exist.”
And therein lies the true lesson of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. Japan has a strong history of hosting athletic events ever since the roaring success of the 1964 Tokyo Games, which signalled Japan’s return to the world stage as a peaceful and prosperous country following World War II. The success of the 1964 Games was manifold since they were the first to be hosted in Asia and also the first to be telecast internationally. But they are also remembered for ushering in Tokyo’s celebrated ‘bullet train’ which continues to contribute immensely to Tokyo’s world-famous public transportation system. This historic Olympiad was a triumph not least because it was pioneered by the Japanese global giant Dentsu, the company that came up with the sponsorship-driven model of the Olympics that has since become the golden standard.
Every four years the Olympics offers a singular moment of unison and Tokyo 2021 is a critical opportunity to bring our divided globe together once again. We should join Biden in supporting the athletes who catalyse this all-important unison of over 200 different countries. The three-week showcase of excellence and diversity will gather the energy of the global community behind it and provide the world a healthy dose of much-needed positivity.