Tokyo Olympics: Skip the pageantry, it's the athletes which deserve support

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Covid-19 related warnings on the big screen ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Japan. Picture date: Friday July 23, 2021. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
Covid-19 related warnings on the big screen ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Japan. Picture date: Friday July 23, 2021. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Reporting from Tokyo

TOKYO — If sports is a microcosm of life, then the Tokyo Olympics organisers must be hoping that the sporting extravaganza would somehow burst into life when the Games cauldron is lit at the Opening Ceremony tonight (23 July).

For the 10,000-odd athletes deserve much more than the muted, indifferent mood prevailing in the megapolis that is reluctantly hosting them amid an increasingly worrisome pandemic situation.

Already, they arrived in Tokyo with much trepidation, knowing that a single positive COVID-19 test could cost any of them of participation at the Games, laying to waste years of intense training and countless sacrifices.

A handful have unfortunately succumbed, such as Britain's world No.1 skeet shooter Amber Hill and American teen tennis sensation Coco Gauff. You can imagine how devastated they must have been to be denied the opportunity to compete right at the 11th hour.

It is a dreadful thing to deal with, in addition to the usual pressure of competition and confusion that comes with being in a foreign land speaking a foreign language. Nonetheless, most athletes are pressing on stoically, hoping for the best amid an unpredictable situation.

Almost invisible to Tokyo residents

And yet, outside of the Games venues, Athletes' Village and media centres, it is almost as if the Olympics are invisible to the millions of Tokyo residents.

There are precious few banners, flags and mascots seen along the thoroughfare roads and shopping malls. Fan zones – where people can mill around and watch the sporting action – have been canned due to COVID-19. Worst of all, the Games venues are enclosed under a heavy blanket of security, intent on keeping out the banned spectators.

You could almost forgive the residents for not giving a thought about the Olympics. Their lives are now shrouded by the COVID-19 pandemic, as they try to adjust to a fourth State of Emergency in the metropolis, which will last until after the Games.

With new daily cases in Tokyo skyrocketing to nearly 2,000 – after going as low as 376 just last month – keeping themselves and their loved ones safe is probably their paramount concern, amid the low vaccination rates in Japan. 

The Olympics seem like a frivolous and expensive distraction from their daily strain under the pandemic – something they can easily ignore.

Which is a crying shame, because sports is something that many Japanese value. Amid the one-hour shuttle-bus trip from my hotel to the Olympics press centre, this reporter frequently sees runners pounding the sidewalks even with masks on, cyclists accompanying them, and kids gleefully playing baseball or football at their school fields.

Scandals tainting start of Games

It is also infuriating that, even as the organisers try their hardest to convince Tokyo residents that the Olympics will be worth their time, they are being hit repeatedly by scandals just as the Games are about to start.

On Monday, a music composer for the Opening Ceremony quit after it emerged he had bullied classmates with disabilities at school. Then on Thursday - a day before the ceremony - came another shocker: the ceremony's director was fired over a joke he made about the Holocaust as a comedian in 1998.

One may feel that it is a little odd that these old transgressions were made public right before the start of the Games, as if intending to cause maximum disruption before an Olympics already straining under the pandemic cloud.

Yet it has only given the ordinary Japanese more reasons not to care, as they are already nonplussed that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been repeatedly declaring that the Olympics will be a beacon of hope to uplift the world after one-and-a-half years of battling COVID-19.

Such stubborn self-certainty has pushed the Olympics past drug scandals, terrorist attacks and overspending hosts in previous Games. Yet those troubles were confined within the Games, while the indifference due to the pandemic is on a global scale, with Tokyo merely a reflection.

One doubts the IOC will show more sensitivity or humility when the Olympics begin in earnest. Whether the public can ignore the unsavoury incidents and wholeheartedly support this "beacon of hope" is also in doubt.

Singapore rower Joan Poh in action during her Tokyo Olympics heats. (PHOTO: Singapore National Olympic Council)
Singapore rower Joan Poh in action during her Tokyo Olympics heats. (PHOTO: Singapore National Olympic Council)

Athletes deserve support for noble intent

Which brings us back to the athletes. They have waited patiently amid the one-year delay of the Games; they have braved the uncertain pandemic conditions to continue training hard; and they have put up with the numerous measures to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

All for an opportunity to show the world what physical feats can be accomplished with such persistent dedication. They are similar to the runners on the street, or the kids enjoying home runs on the baseball fields – they just take such passion to the extreme.

And they need an audience. Sports is, in essence, a performance – and these elite sportspeople are finding out that they are having to compete amid dwindling interest, with fans already barred from the arenas due to the pandemic.

It is a dispiriting prospect which they don't deserve. Just like they were inspired to become athletes by the feats of past generations of sportsmen, they will also be hoping that their feats at the Olympics can spur the next generation to continue expanding the physical limits of the human.

One may frown upon the IOC's tone-deaf attitude towards the COVID-suffering world, yet these athletes should still be afforded some form of attention, if only as an appreciation that their endeavours are worthwhile. This has been the running theme in recent Olympics: its noble intention is buried under excessive pageantry. 

So skip the overblown Opening Ceremony, but tune in to be astonished by the likes of gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles, swimming torpedo Caeleb Dressel and your country's best athletes. They are worth your time.

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