Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Prime Minister, is a hard man to read. He has a sum total of one facial expression and lives up to the national stereotype of inscrutability. Still, I’m pretty sure I know what was going through his mind at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday night: ‘Thank God, that’s over.'
The games were not the disaster that many, including this writer, feared. Two weeks’ ago in Coffee House I wondered if Tokyo 2020/1 would be the worst ever Olympics – and for a brief panicky period, when an astonishing 11th hour cancellation was mooted, that actually looked optimistic. But in the end, the show did go on. And it was, just about, all right on the night.
The organisation was certainly impressive: admitting, processing and manoeuvring around Tokyo 11,000 athletes and their entourages at a time of Covid restrictions, without significant problems, took some doing. Those beavering away behind the scenes, dealing with the million and one tiny details essential for a smoothly run games, deserve great credit. The athletes seem to have been well looked after and generally happy – save for a few grumbles (e.g. the ‘anti-sex’ beds in the village).
The actual sport was also better than many expected and for a few golden moments all the negativity surrounding this Olympics was banished from our minds by sheer athletic excellence. Norway’s Kirsten Warholm’s preternatural triumph in the 400 metre was the stand out, but there were tremendous performances from the phenomenal Sifan Hassan, Eliud Kipchoge and many more. And very few positive drugs tests have been reported (at least so far).
Nor, as had been feared, were the games seriously marred by politics. These may been have been the wokest Olympics ever, with a number of Japanese officials purged for speech crimes going back decades but political protests from athletes didn’t overwhelm the athletic achievements. A few ‘knees’ were taken in the women’s football, and the USA’s Raven Saunders waved her arms above her head in support of ‘her communities’; but the podiums were not exploited by social justice athletes. Overall, we heard more about BMX than BLM.
However, any attempt to portray the games as a triumph must be heavily caveated. The sports are just part of an Olympics: it should also be a showcase for all that is best about the host city, and a precious experience for local people. From that perspective, while the ‘2020/1 Olympics’ may have gone OK, ‘The Tokyo Olympics 2020/1’ can hardly be said to have happened at all. Had it not been for the ubiquitous logos, the casual viewer might not have been aware that the games were taking place in Japan at all.
Tokyoites, who will pay for the whole thing, may well feel distinctly short-changed. While those who remember the ‘64 Tokyo games often speak of it as a time of great excitement and pride, few here are likely to look back on 2021 with any nostalgia at all. I work within walking distance of the Olympic stadium but saw no events and felt no more a part of this Olympics than if I had watched it at back home in Glasgow.
The absence of visitors robbed Tokyo of that special communal festival atmosphere that global sports competitions can engender, and was certainly here during the rugby World Cup in 2019. The sushi bars, izakayas and ramen shops, which should have been throbbing with tourists, locals, and journalists, were virtually empty. Many businesses, which had budgeted for an Olympic windfall saw no benefit from these games at all. My friend the robot concierge ‘Arisa’, who had been set for a busy fortnight helping lost tourists, was a forlorn neglected figure.
And then there was the heat... Nobody died at Tokyo 2020/1, but that was probably only down to luck, and the ban on spectators in the stadium. The closest we came to disaster was on the tennis court, where games were scheduled, absurdly, to begin at noon. Spanish player Paula Badosa was removed in a wheelchair suffering from heat exhaustion. Even in the supposedly cooler Sapporo there were a record 30 DNFs (did not finish) in the marathon. A lesson that must be learned from Tokyo 2020/1 is never to schedule in such conditions again, whatever the demands of a global TV audience.
Prime Minister Suga was certainly feeling the heat. If the games had been cancelled, or Covid deaths had surged, or there had been a tragedy, he would have been held responsible.
He can relax a bit now, but not for long. He faces re-election before the end of October and his chances are not considered good. Despite the Olympic ‘success’ his popularity rating has dropped to 35 per cent – a historic low and another of the many records set during these extraordinary games.