Tokyo Olympics 2020: Dylan Cleaver – A carnival of conquest and calamity – but these Games can be saved


In normal circumstances, the prelude to an Olympiad is a simple proposition.

In the days leading up to the Games, we roll out our listicles — the greatests, the medal prospects, the dark horses — and athlete profiles. We dig into sports less covered, an exercise which schools up the writer as much as the reader.

We talk about the host city, the venues, and the athletes’ village.

There will be a story about the number of condoms distributed into the village — always.

That prurient appetite momentarily sated, we pivot to writing about the carnival of conquest and calamity we can expect to see over the next two weeks usually, but not exclusively, in the language of cliché and chestnuts, the hoary old kind.

Tokyo 2020, well that’s not so simple. You can tell that by looking at the name — “2020”, now look at the date on your phone, it doesn’t correspond, does it?

This will be an Olympics like no other, we keep hearing, which is convenient language for “we have no idea how this will go”.

This confused feeling was summed up by the New Zealand Olympic Committee when they offered this non sequitur in the second paragraph of their weekly newsletter: “It is a Games like no other, but there is no other feeling like being at an Olympic Games.”

If we’re going to talk about feelings, we should start with the vast majority of Tokyo’s residents who believe the Games should have been further postponed or cancelled. The world is still in a state of pandemic, with the coronavirus’ delta variant causing havoc in many parts of the world, including Japan, while the International Olympic Committee has staged a corporate takeover of their town.

It is an absurd undertaking for a city to be taking on, but it is here and it is happening so we return to the central question: what to expect?

There will be the ridiculous. As if to prove the point we can cue up the Polish Swimming Federation who selected 23 athletes for their Olympic team when they were allowed just 17. Six have been sent home while the federation’s collective ears burn from the outrage and opprobrium.

“I’m deeply shocked by what happened. This is an absurd situation for me that should never have happened. In fact, I hope to wake up from this nightmare eventually,” wrote one of the still-dry six, Mateusz Chowaniec.

He posted that to social media and it has been said more than once that this will be the Instagram Games, which seems a meaningless designation to deflect from the fact this will (sensibly) be a crowd-free event.

That will be the strangest part of an already weird situation: the best athletes in the world will be performing for the most part in literal echo chambers.

That’s a problem we’ve seen over the past two years, whether it has been Premier League games lacking frisson, international cricketers climbing into the stands to retrieve boundaries, or teams forced to play “away” games for entire series.

Modern professional and high-performance sport is a data-driven machine but we have learned the importance of the immeasurable. We have learned that the energy and atmosphere created by paying spectators with vested interests in the outcome is professional sport.

Everything else is just a made-for-TV exhibition.

In the Olympics, this seems especially true (though the next three weeks might make a lie of that). These are largely sports that fly under the radar for four years, that don’t have the broadcast and PR infrastructure of the big team-sport leagues.

There is something deflating about the prospect of athletes circling the National Stadium searching only from within for the type of electric charge they’d receive from the crowd.

The prospect of canned rhythmic clapping being piped in feels more depressing than knowing you’re going to have to listen to Slice of Heaven at an All Black test.

There are not even eye-catching stadia to make up for the absence of humans. Many of the venues are repurposed from the 1964 Olympics, causing The Observer‘s architecture columnist — yep, they have one of those — to ponder: “Wherever that colossal expenditure went, it doesn’t seem to have gone into architectural invention.”

The columnist’s verdict that the stadia look “mostly ho-hum and stodgy, corporate” and “lacking in spark” is less damning than what it seems.

Given what we know about the economics of the Olympics and how crippling they can be on the host cities — case in point: Google “Montreal and the Big Owe” — it makes little sense to add to the burden with “trophy” stadia that quickly turn into white elephants.

There are so many things we just don’t know about these Games, including whether IOC president Thomas Bach is a modern-day Prospero, inviting the plague into Tokyo while relying on his wealth and influence to escape it.

What we do know is the show is about to go on.

In the end, perhaps that’s all that really matters. For a few weeks, we can forget about the real world and enjoy some people going backwards in boats, jumping over fences on horses and going really fast in circles on push bikes.

There will be the ridiculous, but the event can be saved by the sublime, whether it’s Lisa Carrington, Katie Ledecky, Sky Brown, Eliud Kipchoge, Simone Biles, Karsten Warholm or any number of phenomenal athletes who will grace our screens.

The event might have been brought to earth by outside forces, but the stars will remain stars. It’ll be a Games like no other and almost certainly the lesser for it, but, after all, there is no other feeling like an Olympics.

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