The XXXII Olympiad, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, officially began Friday night.
A year late, 22% over budget, and denuded of spectators, the Games will be a testament to the human spirit — the determination to overcome hardship and showcase sportsmanship, respect and our common humanity.
When the Games are done, we can assess how true that bold assertion was — or whether that often-cited justification was just empty words or a carefully crafted delusion. For now, we can only cheer and applaud the athletes as they compete to be the best in the world in their sports.
Japan has hosted four Olympics: Tokyo held the 1964 Games, Sapporo the 1972 Winter Olympics and Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Games. The 2020 Games were supposed to echo the 1964 event: Just as it showed the world that the nation had recovered from defeat and devastation in the war, these Games would demonstrate that the country’s multidecade malaise had ended and showcase a new, vibrant, creative and energetic Japan.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has crushed those ambitions, the Games can still celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of the competitors. These will be the largest Games ever with 11,500 athletes competing for 339 medals in 33 sports. In addition to the perennial favorites — swimming, track and field — the Games this year for the first time include karate, surfing, rock climbing and skateboarding, and have added men’s and women’s three-on-three basketball, BMX freestyle and some mixed gender team events in swimming and track and field. Baseball and softball have also returned for the first time since 2008.
Hopefully, now we can focus on the performances rather than the politics. Will Naomi Osaka return to form on the tennis court and win the gold in that event? How many medals will U.S. gymnast Simone Biles add to her count and what will she show the world if she — as expected — confirms her status as the greatest gymnast of all time? And we look forward to the return of swimmer Rikako Ikee, who has overcome leukemia and will swim in the 4×100 medley relay.
Indeed, every competitor has a story that deserves to be told, and regardless of their performance, their appearance should be celebrated.
Hopefully, too, we can focus on the athletes rather than the countries they represent. It is dispiriting that an event intended to celebrate individual accomplishment and excellence has been consistently hijacked by politicians and pundits who prefer to see those successes as validating national agendas and ambitions.
The Olympics are supposed to unite us in our desire to test ourselves, and in that competition, help us see and appreciate our shared humanity. Instead, they have all too often served to harden divisions, draw darker lines and bring out the worst, rather than the best, in us.
That is why Russian athletes at this year’s Games will compete under the banner of ROC — the Russian Olympic Committee — rather than that of Russia and their national flag and anthem will not be flown or played if they win gold medals. That is the result of the 2015 doping scandal that revealed a systematic effort to cheat at international sports events.
But there is no escaping the COVID-19 pandemic that will taint these Games. Several athletes, some of them anticipated to win medals, have been forced to drop out of the competition because they tested positive for the infection before the events began. As of early Friday, 13 athletes and 97 others involved with the Games have tested positive and were forced to quarantine. Other athletes have abandoned their Olympic bids because COVID-19 protocols denied them the support that they considered essential to their participation and hopes of success.
The absence of spectators adds a surreal quality to the events too, robbing them of an accustomed soundtrack, but also allowing those who watch on television to hear the competition as never before. Oddly, there may be greater intimacy from a distance.
We can only hope that the COVID-19 protocols work and that the competition goes off without a glitch. With 100,000 people coming to Japan in various capacities for the Games, that seems like a long shot. The nightmare scenario consists of final heats in which qualifying athletes cannot participate because they have tested positive. That would truly taint any outcome and put an asterisk next to any finish.
That is for a final reckoning, however. When the competition is over, the organizers — both the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee — will need to answer for their determination to hold the 2020 Games, a decision that sometimes seemed indifferent to the human costs and inconsistent with the spirit of the Olympics.
For now, however, we should enjoy and celebrate the accomplishments of men and women determined to defy gravity, to rediscover the limits of the human body and spirit, and exult in the camaraderie of team sports. We hope that the XXXII Olympiad shows us the very best of humanity and inspires each of us to reach for similar heights.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.