When Tokyo won the right to host the 2020 Olympics in 2013, the then Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, christened it the “Recovery Games”. It was a metaphor for Japan’s fabled resilience. After the industrial city of Fukushima had withstood an earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, Japan needed to heal. The Olympics, it was thought, would be the balm. Ten years on, even as Fukushima is the epicentre of the “No Olympics” protests, the word “recovery” has acquired an entirely different hue, and a universal context. These are a one-of-a-kind Games grappling with multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic and over 4 million global deaths. Such is the tightrope that just a couple of days before the opening ceremony, as the world was checking in, organisers were not ruling out cancellation of the Games. In reality, much depends on these Summer Games. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has in mind the Diet election later this year, IOC fears missing out on the billions plus the scrapping of this edition might escalate the existential fear of the Olympic movement. But even if Tokyo 2020 remains secure inside the bio-bubble, the virus will remain the all-pervading protagonist of this Summer Games.
Had it not been for the pandemic, Japan’s second Olympics would have been hyped as the Games with several firsts. Whereas in the past the athletes were not allowed to demonstrate their activism, the IOC has been more accommodating this time around. The Olympics are not “apolitical” — athletes can take the knee, wrap their biceps in rainbow straps, and embroider the flags of Kosovo and Palestine on their socks and stockings. These are also the greenest of Games — medals are made from discarded mobile phones and the cardboard beds for athletes will get recycled into paper products after the event. The unique two flag-bearers rule — male and female — is a move towards gender parity. The inclusion of un-Olympic sports like skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing at Tokyo is a watershed decision with the potential to change the way Olympians look forever.
In times of pandemic, the excitement battles with the fear. According to a survey conducted by media house Asahi Shimbun, 68 per cent of the population opposed staging the Games this summer due to the public health emergency and the economic downturn. The optimists, though, say that once the Olympic torch is lit, the country and the world will bask in the spectacle and glory of the best athletes. Swimmer Caeleb Dressel, sprinter Noah Lyles, gymnast Simon Biles and karate “kid” Sakura Kokumai have it in them to cast a spell over millions. Those not too keen on sports will also have their eye on Japan for this happens to be the first global gathering since the pandemic. As many as 15,000 athletes and 5,000 plus support staff and officials from 200 countries will fly in and out of Tokyo. For a weary world forced indoors, a successful Games will touch off hopes of a future of normalcy and the outdoors.