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Tokyo Games' 'unusual form' offers chance for hard look at Olympics, Japan

Fireworks are set off after all the Olympic delegations had entered the Japan National Stadium for the opening ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, on July 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

The Japan National Stadium, the main venue for the 2020 Summer Olympics in the heart of Tokyo, was supposed to be filled with smiling faces and cheering voices. At the Olympics, not just athletes but spectators are main players, but they've been stripped away this time. And so, the Tokyo Games kicked off in this "unusual form," with a perplexed world looking on.

    It is wrong to blame this anomaly on the coronavirus pandemic alone. The COVID-19 crisis has made visible the underlying problems Japan faces. We need to look carefully at this point.

    The idea behind Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Games was to restore Japan to the prosperity of the past and banish the lasting economic doldrums that took hold after the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s. The country has been obsessed with reenacting its success with hosting the 1964 Tokyo Games, with repeating that dream.

    The slogans for this latest Summer Games include "recovery" from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and "proof" that humankind has overcome the coronavirus, but these are a mere emotional recycling of the "post-World War II reconstruction" that the 1964 Games symbolized.

    It is unclear to what degree the government and organizers were thinking of nation-building with this Olympics, and the slogans seem very ad hoc. The strongest proof of this is that, as we speak, the nation is witnessing a rapid resurgence of coronavirus infections. There has been little public sympathy towards holding the games under these conditions.

    Under the pandemic, it is inevitable for politics to come to the fore, as conflict of opinions sometimes deepens when it comes to crisis management in a mega-event.

    What is called for under such circumstances is an explanation of the event's aim and the risks it entails, and clarification of the criteria for stopping it. However, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ended up regurgitating the "safe and secure Olympics" mantra ad infinitum. His obvious aim to use the games to bolster his administration ended up fueling public distrust in the games.

    When politicians turn their backs on dialogue with the people, what lies beyond may be social division. We cannot rule out that such a divide could be the bitter legacy of this Olympics.

    The latest games also brought into relief the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s authoritarian, aristocratic and commercialist nature.

    Remarks by IOC President Thomas Bach and other higher-ups to the effect that going ahead with the Olympics was a foregone conclusion have strengthened public resistance to the games. The people of Japan came to perceive them as a threat to their daily lives.

    Despite the IOC being the main organizer, it has pushed the burdens and risks of holding the games on to the host country and its local bodies, while benefiting from its own privileged position. The 2020 Games have exposed the IOC's arrogance.

    Organizers boast that the Tokyo Olympics feature a record 339 events in 33 sports, but has the IOC learned anything along the way to this point? Bloated commercialism has been handed a red card. There is no way an event too colossal for anyone to take responsibility can be sustainable.

    In the face of a host of challenges, athletes are resolved to compete in the games. As Japanese delegation captain Ryota Yamagata vowed, "We believe in the power of sport and pledge to fight through with all our strength." The Olympic athletes' pursuit of the motto "faster, higher, stronger" is precious. It is only natural for people to be moved by their dedicated play and performances.

    What's essential here is to separate the thrills and emotions we feel for athletes from the plethora of problems plaguing the event, and not to let those issues be forgotten once the games are over.

    No other country's people may have been so troubled and given so much thought into the meaning of holding the Olympics. We must cherish this awareness that has grown in each and every individual.

    The world is seeing a host of worsening conflicts, economic disparity and other problems. The string of scandals that hit the organizers ahead of the opening of the Tokyo Games has led Japan to realize how behind it is in its awareness of human rights and other issues.

    We ought to make the most of this awakening in examining the games, and question anew the meaning of the Olympics. The real game is about to start.

    (Japanese original by Hirotomo Maeda, Executive Editor)

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