PREVIEW: The Olympics that no one really wants is set to begin

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Two men take a selfie in front of the Olympic Rings in Tokyo, Japan.
Two men take a selfie in front of the Olympic Rings in Tokyo, Japan. (PHOTO: Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — It has been postponed for an entire year, but as the Tokyo Summer Games gets ready to ignite the cauldron on Friday (23 July), there is one question on everyone's mind: Does anybody really want this Olympics to happen now?

In any other Olympic year, this would have been an outrageous question. The Summer Games is, after all, one of the most beloved events in the world, with billions tuning in to be inspired by record-breaking feats by some of the globe's finest athletes.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic still of major concern in most parts of the world - not least of all right in the city of Tokyo - it does seem a touch tone-deaf to call for everyone to take a pause from the battle against the coronavirus and take part in a celebration of sporting values and human spirit.

Could the Olympics rid the world of COVID-19? Of course not. So why are the organisers insistent on holding it in the middle of a worrying spread of the contagious Delta variant? 

These are certainly uncomfortable ethical questions as the thousands of athletes, officials, media crew and VIPs descend warily onto Tokyo for 17 days of sporting action, amid arenas devoid of local and international fans.

Loss of two biggest icons through retirement

Even before COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on its well-laid plans last year, the Tokyo Olympics already had its hands full trying to emulate the successes of past editions such as the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games.

It has had to contend with the retirements of two of the biggest Olympic stars ever: Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. With no up-and-coming athletes having as much star power as these two record-breaking icons, public interest for the Games struggled to reach fever pitch even before the pandemic. 

Japan has also had to deal with its own major athlete setback, as swimmer Rikako Ikee, who broke out at the 2018 Asian Games with six golds and two silvers, stunned the nation when she announced a year later that she was diagnosed with leukaemia. A bright swimming career was put on hold as she sought treatment.

With the organisational budget already likely to massively exceed its original US$7.3 billion plan, domestic support for the Games was lukewarm at best – and it would bite hard when the pandemic struck.

Reluctance to postpone Games irked many

Already, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had left a bad taste in the mouth with its reluctance to postpone the Tokyo Games when COVID-19 tore through the world early last year. It was not until countries like Canada and Australia began to pull out that the IOC was forced to confront with the dangers of hosting amid a raging pandemic. 

Yet, even as the IOC finally decided in March 2020 to postpone the Tokyo Olympics for a year, it remained oblivious to the real-world woes and concerns of the public, as it proudly proclaimed then that the Games could "stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times".

Really? One wonders if anyone having to suffer the agony of seeing their loved ones battling the coronavirus would ever be soothed by watching athletes win gold medals. 

Nevertheless, the general sentiment back then was: if the COVID-19 situation improves by 2021, we could see ourselves being relieved enough to enjoy the Olympics.

Flash forward to 2021, and the situation remains worryingly dire even as vaccination for COVID-19 has begun. Variants of the coronavirus have put a big spanner in the works in many countries' recovery plans. 

Unsurprisingly the Olympics is far, far from the minds of the general public; they are preoccupied instead with protecting themselves from the coronavirus, and with adapting to the ever-changing circumstances amid the pandemic. Most definitely, they are not eager for gold-medal winners or world-record beaters right now.

And yet, the IOC says that the Tokyo Olympics will not be postponed again, even as the megapolis is already in the throes of a fourth state of emergency with the authorities still struggling to keep its COVID-19 cases under control. Experts have decried the decision to press on with the Games amid such heavy burden on the city's medical system.

It has certainly been disconcerting to see the organisers insisting that the show must go on, even amid dwindling support from the public (at one point, more than 80 per cent of the Tokyo population did not want the Games to happen), the sponsors (many are cancelling or scaling back promotional events) and, most damaging of all, the athletes (the absences of stars such as tennis' Serena Williams and basketball's LeBron James).

A worker stands in front of a sign describing COVID-19 countermeasures at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
A worker stands in front of a sign describing COVID-19 countermeasures at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (PHOTO: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Will we see magic of Olympics in Tokyo?

Now that fans are barred from the events, and the organisers are enforcing a "bubble" among the athletes, officials, media personnel and the various venues, one has to wonder: will we ever see the essence and magic of the Games at this edition?

Gone are the crowds to spur the athletes on in crunch-time situations. Gone are the fans of different nationalities joyously mingling amid the Olympic fan zones. And most likely gone will be the camaraderie among athletes, now that they are discouraged from hugging or even hand-shaking.

At this point, the elephant in the room is hard to ignore: Who really wants this Olympics to happen now?

Not the residents of Tokyo, who are denied the opportunity of soaking in the Olympic festivities due to the inability of the government to halt the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Not the global sports fans, who can only watch the Games from afar. And really, are they even in the mood for a sporting extravaganza amid their health and economy troubles?

Not the sponsors, whose will not be getting eyeballs on their advertisement boards at the venues. Will they feel shortchanged because of the lack of spectators?

What about the organisers? One suspects, deep down, they don't want the Games happening right now too. But further postponement - if it even were to be approved by the IOC - would mean ever-mounting costs, massive logistic jams and complicated re-scheduling of the global sporting calendar. 

Spare a thought for the athletes

Which leaves the most important stakeholders of all – the athletes. 

Despite several high-profile withdrawals, over 10,000 of them are still willing to risk their health and safety to compete in front of empty and silent stands.

To those who don't follow sports – especially those living in Tokyo – they may rightly feel that it is a little unbecoming of these sportspeople to gather in such masses and put others at risk of COVID-19 infection. 

Yet, one should also be empathetic to the plights of these athletes, many of whom have trained for years, pushing themselves constantly past their limits and sacrificing their day jobs and family time – only to have to put their lives on hold for a whole year as the Olympics was postponed.

No one wants to see their efforts go to waste, not after they have poured their heart and soul into qualifying for the Games competitions. To these athletes, the COVID-19 situation has been disruptive, but it is merely another obstacle to be overcome, and not to be cowered by, amid their quests for sporting excellence. 

Viewed from this perspective, perhaps it is understandable why the IOC insists that the Olympics go on, while the Tokyo organisers are pulling out all the stops to protect these athletes. 

So for the next fortnight or so, we will be rooting for Ikee, who made a stunning return from her major illness to qualify for the Japan 4x100m medley relay team. We will be gaping in awe when Simone Biles does the Yurchenko double pike, the vault move only the American can execute among all the female gymnasts.

And we would inevitably scream ourselves hoarse in front of our TV sets in the 10 seconds which the men's 100m sprinters vie for that precious gold medal — even though they will not be able to hear us.

It is a natural fascination to see others push past the plausible limits of the human body. So despite all the possibilities of COVID-19 outbreaks, there is a chance that these Olympic athletes could still evoke wonder and optimism amid such worrisome times.

For that sliver of hope, let the Games begin.

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