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Editorial: Time to consider Olympic Games' roots as pandemic overshadows tournament

Except for wartime, there has probably never been an Olympic tournament that has faced such strong headwinds and questions. After being delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have commenced in Japan's capital for the first time in 57 years.

    But there were no crowds at the newly constructed Japan National Stadium, and no thunder of cheers to welcome the athletes from around the world who filed in for the opening ceremony.

    To prevent coronavirus infections, a "bubble" system has been adopted in which athletes travel between the Olympic Village and the competition venues. It is an unprecedented tournament in which athletes have been isolated from the host society.

    In recent years, the games have become bloated with nationalism and commercialism. This year the coronavirus pandemic has stripped away the adornments of the Olympics as a festival, exposing its true nature.

    American political scientist and author Jules Boykoff described the situation surrounding the Olympic Games as "Celebration Capitalism."

    The state and companies invest huge sums into these celebratory events in anticipation of the profits they will gain, and the games continue to balloon. The Tokyo Olympics are the epitome of this. The Japanese government set to work on Tokyo's bid for the games as a national project and including related expenses, more than 3 trillion yen (about $27.14 billion) has been poured into the Tokyo Games to date.

    The national stadium that was the setting for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics could have been used this time, but it was demolished and a new one built. And new facilities were constructed one after the other in waterfront areas of the capital.

    In addition to the 14 "Worldwide Partners" sponsoring the games, there are also 67 sponsor companies in Japan.

    Major U.S. broadcasting conglomerate NBCUniversal Media LLC has signed a massive broadcasting rights deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) covering the 10 Olympic Games up to the 2032 Summer Olympics projected at around $12.03 billion (1.3 trillion yen). This money helps fund the IOC.

    In Japan, people have expressed concerns about hosting the Olympics during the pandemic, and at one stage 80% of people wanted the games to be canceled or further postponed. The IOC, however, insisted on going ahead with the games -- drawing public ire.

    The tournament's organizing committee has been bound by the complicated contract of the huge event, which caused its management to waver. A prime example of this can be seen in the decision to hold the games mostly without spectators, which came only days before they began.

    Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, the founder of the modern Olympics, foresaw a future crisis. He left the following words in a speech he gave in 1925: "Fair or temple -- sportsmen must make their choice; they cannot expect to frequent both one and the other." The "fair" he referred to could be interchanged with Boykoff's "Celebration Capitalism" while the "temple" is a reference to the purity of sports.

    It was Kenkichi Oshima, the leader of the Japanese delegation at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, who conveyed Coubertin's ideas to Japan. He argued that the Olympics, held every four years, needed to be "blessed" as an event instilled with wishes for peace during the games. The spread of the coronavirus, however, has continued around the world since last year, and a blessing can hardly be bestowed. In his speech at the opening ceremony, Emperor Naruhito did not use the word for "celebration" that was used at the time of the 1964 Olympics, instead using a term translating as "commemoration."

    The Tokyo 2020 Games Vision is "Diversity and Inclusion," based on a deepening of mutual understanding through competition that transcends all differences, such as race and skin color, gender, sexual orientation, origin, and religion.

    The Refugee Olympic Team formed following the previous summer games is a symbol of this vision. It comprises 29 athletes from 11 countries who had to leave their own nations due to civil war and other reasons. One member of the refugee team is Yusra Mardini from Syria, who fled during the war there, swimming to Europe.

    "This small team is representing so much hope, not only to refugees but to young people around the word," she said.

    In Japan, too, there are various athletes of note, such as Rikako Ikee, a swimmer who managed to secure a berth at the games after overcoming leukemia, and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who grew up in the United States after her family moved there. She has raised her voice against racial discrimination.

    The games' organizing committee saw a stream of people involved in the event resign or be dismissed due to actions lacking human rights awareness, and the world took a harsh view of the situation. We hope that the importance of a society that respects diversity will be reaffirmed.

    No doubt some things will come into view from empty stadiums. Now is the time to return to the roots of the games, and reconsider the significance of the Olympics.

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