Pageantry in empty stadiums
If you were looking for omens, it was hard to beat this one. Police in Fukushima received word that a black bear was seen roaming inside the Olympic softball venue, but when they went to investigate, the marauding beast had vanished.
As competition began at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday night, the news was full of wild animals and bad smells. The latter involved a ‘‘stomach-churning odour’’ at an urban beach that will be a venue for open water swimming and triathlons.
Will the games be an uplifting distraction from the surreal and uncertain state of the world in 2021, or will it be yet another confirmation of it? You might have hoped for two weeks without thinking about Covid-19 and racial inequality, climate change and environmental damage, but instead, those and other problems will make symbolic appearances within the Games themselves, making the Olympics not so much a wall as a window.
The disjunction between how we should feel and how we actually feel is striking. Australians learned on Wednesday that Brisbane will host the Olympics in 2032, which seems impossibly distant. On the same day, New South Wales and Victoria reported record new cases of Covid-19, and South Australia joined them in lockdown. Queensland seems safe for now.
We can identify with the stance of Japan’s Emperor Naruhito. Japanese media reported that he may avoid using the obligatory word ‘‘celebration’’ when he officially opens the Games, as a snub to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and to express solidarity with the many Japanese who resent the staging of the event during a pandemic.
According to one Japanese media report, ‘‘the Japanese organisers are seeking to refrain from using a jubilant expression as much as possible’’. That seems entirely fitting. Poll after poll has described the level of Japanese opposition. A recent one showed large numbers of respondents are doubtful that organisers could control a Covid19 outbreak and remain opposed to the Olympics going ahead.
Politics and sport are creating their own tensions. New Zealand’s Football Ferns took a knee before their match against Australia on Wednesday night. The gesture was applauded by Rob Waddell, chef de mission of the New Zealand Olympic team, and the Ferns were praised as advocates for social justice. Other teams from other countries have made the same gesture and more will surely follow. Yet the action does not seem to be endorsed by the IOC which has, according to The Guardian, banned the Olympics’ official social media channels from circulating images of athletes taking a knee. That too seems expressive of a heavyhanded approach by the IOC.
And Covid is still raging in Japan. Experts said in May the daily infection rate in Tokyo would have to fall below 100 before the city could host the Olympics safely. This week, Tokyo hit 1832 new cases in a day, the highest rate in six months. There have been about 80 cases directly linked with the Olympics since early July, mostly affecting local contractors.
No doubt there will be many triumphant and inspiring sporting moments, but it is hard to avoid the thought that eye-wateringly expensive pageantry in empty stadiums is an accurate summary of a civilisation that lives in the present with little thought for the future.
The disjunction between how we should feel and how we actually feel is striking.