The moment of reckoning is here. After months of uncertainty and much to-ing and fro-ing, the 32nd Olympic Games will officially be inaugurated at the newly built National Stadium in Tokyo on July 23. It will, however, be anything but business as usual.
For starters, Tokyo 2020 will get underway exactly one year later than its scheduled start. The coronavirus pandemic which still has the world in its vice-like grip has necessitated further changes in the dynamics of a quadrennial extravaganza traditionally marked by passion, atmosphere and vibrancy. For the first time since the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, the Games will be staged in front of empty stands, leaving athletes to find other avenues of inspiration beyond electric audiences that lifted performers, home-grown and from overseas, with their energy and enthusiasm.
Nothing, perhaps, symbolises the extraordinary times we live in better than Tokyo 2020. The Olympic Games are as much about the thrill of competition as the celebration of sport. They provide a storied platform on which the kings and the commoners can interact freely without the class divide which is inevitable if unfortunate fallout of the growing professional structure to competitive sport. They allow people of different nations, languages, lifestyles and cultures to come together, and often trigger bonds that last a lifetime.
Not this time around, though, sadly. The 11,000-plus competitors will be under de-facto house arrest, their outings restricted to training and competition venues. There will be no partaking of the sights and sounds of the host city, no soaking in the local culture and cuisine, no catching up with old friends and definitely no forging new relationships. In essence, the Olympics have been stripped of their charm and character, the systemic sterilisation of the world’s most beloved sporting event reflecting the current global climate where sanitisation and social distancing have become existential bywords.
Some of the finest sportspersons of their generation will not grace the Olympic stage with their magic and genius for reasons beyond the regular – injury, or doping-related suspensions. Many of them have either been COVID-affected or have opted out owing to the stifling restrictions for the duration of their stay in Tokyo. These are global superstars who have been there, done that in the unforgiving environs of a professional individual or team pursuits, but who have also taken great pride in representing their countries on the grandest sporting stage of all. That connoisseurs of the sport won’t get a chance to see many of them in action, possibly for the last time at an Olympics, is a crying shame, however beyond anyone’s control that might be because of.
With the build-up fragmented and pitfalls galore in wait, it will be naïve to expect Utopian smooth-sailing once the competition begins in right earnest on Saturday – football and softball have already set the ball rolling. Cases of COVID-positive tests in the Games Village have certainly not been as rare as hen’s teeth even though only a fraction of the total athletes expected have reached Tokyo. There is a good chance more cases will emerge as the Olympics wind towards their conclusion on August 8, an eventuality the organisers claim they are prepared for.
For an overwhelming majority of the participants, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle, the reason for them taking up the sport in the first place. To many within that majority, merely being able to participate in an Olympics is a life-long dream realised. The joie de vivre that marks the opening and closing ceremonies, when teams march behind proud and privileged flag-bearers and the crowd goes nuts, microcosms the spirit of Olympism better than a thousand words. The years of sweat and toil, of heartbreak and blood, spilt, of stretching every sinew and searching underneath every stone for that nanosecond improvement, all seem more than worth the while, and particularly so when the country’s flag is hoisted and the national anthem played out at the medal ceremony.
This year, the unchecked tears of joy will only have to be imagined. Beyond the sparkle in the eye, nothing else will be visible, with medallists required to keep face masks on even on the podium. While that will in no way take the sheen off an Olympic medal, the medallists can be excused for believing they have been slightly hard done by.
The success of any Games of this magnitude is dictated by the magnificence of the performers and the participation of the spectators. One of those two elements will be missing in Tokyo 2020. The onus, therefore, will be entirely on the athletes to salvage the situation, even if preparations for many have been far from ideal, what with travel and quarantine restrictions throwing a severe spanner in the works.
Some athletes will be in peak physical condition, others not so. Some will be coming into the Games with reasonable competitive match-play behind them, many will bemoan the lack of the same luxury because several disciplines have been in competition shutdown mode for a few months now. How the impeccably prepared and the less fortunate rise to the challenge, and with what success they are able to quell, even if temporarily, the gremlins bound to be dancing inside their heads given the circumstances, will determine to what degree the Olympic Games manage to retain their sanctity.
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There is only one consideration for the Olympic Games to be staged with such stringent restrictions and without a climate of inclusivity – financial. The concerns of locals about further outbreaks of the pandemic owing to a sudden influx of visitors from various parts of the globe aren’t without basis. But the tangible potential losses in the wake of a cancellation seem to have swayed the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government into ploughing ahead with Tokyo 2020, no matter what. Over the next fortnight, the eyes of the world will be trained almost exclusively eastward. Breaths will be bated, but not just for the usual reasons.