A Summer Games unlike any other are finally here after a yearlong wait and months of hand-wringing in a world ravaged by pandemics. This is an Olympics, yes, but it’s also something very different.
No foreign fans. There is no local attendance at Tokyo-area venues. Unwilling populace trying to navigate a surge in virus cases despite a limited vaccination campaign. The threat of deportation threatens the athletes and their entourages, who are kept in a bubble-like environment. In theory, government monitors and monitoring apps try to track visitors’ movements. Prohibition or curtailment of alcohol consumption. Cultural exchanges, which are the ones that fuel the energy on-the ground of most Games, are completely absent.
It all runs like an electric current: the inexorable knowledge of the sufferings and feelings of displacement that COVID-19 has brought about, here and abroad.
All indications point to an atomized and surreal Games that will split Japan into two worlds in the month of Paralympics and Olympics competition.
One side is that Japan’s unvaccinated and increasingly resentful population will carry on fighting the worst pandemic in history. They will be almost completely separated from the Tokyo Games spectacle, aside from what they see on television. Work and play, illness and recovery, and work all curtailed due to strict virus restrictions will continue here.
Meanwhile, super-athletes vaccinated in large (and expensive) locked-down stadiums will be concentrating on the sports being served up to billions of remote viewers.
The Games have been a focus of Japanese media since the 2020 pandemic that canceled the original version was cancelled in 2020. Are they possible? What will their look like if they do? The fascinating and shocking — to many of us here — idea of staging the Olympics in the midst a slow-motion national catastrophe has permeated society almost as deeply as the virus.
In a recent editorial, Asahi newspaper stated that “the mindset that the Olympics can easily be pushed through force and that everybody should obey the order has led to this mess.” IOC officials and Japanese officials “should realize that their absurdity has deepened public distrust of the Olympics.”
It’s impossible to know what will happen when these cross-currents merge during the Games. However, about 15,000 athletes, and nearly 70,000 officials, media, and other participants, are able to insert themselves in the flow of Tokyo life in a sequestered, limited, but ubiquitous way.
Will Japanese people be more friendly to visitors than they are to their usual hostility? Or will they become more frustrated when they see fully vaccinated guests enjoying freedoms that they haven’t enjoyed since early 2020? Will the Olympians, and other visitors, follow the rules to protect their country? They will bring in new variants to spread throughout Japan. Is it possible to thwart the efforts to eradicate the coronavirus?
One thing is certain: The games will not have the same appeal as the Olympics. With its appealing mix of human competition at the highest levels and celebrations and cultural interchanges on the sidelines, fans, athletes, and locals, there will be far less.
The Olympics are usually a lively time. They last for two weeks and are an opportunity for host cities to showcase their city’s charms to the world. They are brimming with tourists, and they offer all the excitement that a foreign locale and fascinating visitors can provide. This is the second round. However, the TV show will be choreographed to perfection. Japan’s skeptical citizens will remain isolated, as another state of emergency puts additional restrictions on their lives.
Foreign visitors will focus on a different story for these Games than the reality in the streets.
If there is no catastrophe, the IOC and local newspapers (many are also sponsors), Japanese TV and rights holders such as NBC will likely unite in their message: Just getting through can be seen as a victory.
However, few visiting journalists will spend time in ICUs and chase down interviews with residents angry at the Games being imposed on the country in order to collect their billions of TV dollars.
It is more likely that there will be many made-for TV images of a tour book version of Japan. This blends shots of ancient history and tradition with high-tech, futuristic aesthetics. For example, a sleek, silver bullet train streaking past the snowcapped Mount Fuji. This reality is full of predictable establishing shots and easy-to-understand cliches.
Tokyo will have to deal with the inherent oddity of the pandemic Olympics in the coming weeks. The disconnect between sport and sickness, reality and rhetoric, local and visitor, will be difficult to overlook for many.
However, it is not clear how Japan will handle a high-risk experiment that could lead to the coronavirus pandemic. It must wait until the guests pack up and return home. Only then can the real cost of hosting these Surreal Games be revealed.