The Tokyo Olympics are a disaster. There is no way of getting around it: from controversy over a potentially plagiarized logo to the resignation of the organizing committee’s president, to the games’ pandemic-induced postponement from 2020 to 2021 (costing the country an additional $2.8 billion), to accusations that the Olympic bid was a vanity project for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, almost nothing about the lead-up to Tokyo has gone smoothly or as planned.
Even on Wednesday, when the Olympic flame began its 121-day journey across Japan, critics slammed the ceremonial relay as “torch wash[ing]” — since the event, which began in Fukushima, appeared intended to direct focus away from the unsuccessful recovery of the region after the 2011 nuclear disaster, and to distract from how the billions spent on the games could have instead gone toward reconstruction.
But though there are mounting calls for the summer games to be canceled entirely, the Tokyo Olympics could yet be a triumph — because despite one controversy after another, no games have ever been better positioned to achieve the Olympics’ original ideal.
Over 120 years ago, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games, set out to describe the philosophy of “Olympism,” which “seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility, and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” The Olympic movement as a whole was intended to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world” through sport, and connect back to the ancient Greek tradition of the Olympic truce — that is, the gathering of nations in peace to join together in fair play. Of course, the games have drifted far from these ideals over the years, from Nazi Germany co-opting the games, to the Mexico City and Munich massacres, to petty Cold War boycotts, to the recent doping scandal in Russia. The games have also been steadily plagued by accusations of corruption, xenophobic nationalism, and human rights violations; that is, the worst of humankind’s tendencies, rather than the best.
At first glance, Tokyo seems poised to be more of the same. But interestingly, it is actually the setbacks — chief among them, the COVID-19 pandemic — that might bring the summer Olympics closer to Coubertin’s stated goals than they’ve been in a long time.
Take the lack of foreign spectators. Because of the ongoing pandemic, Japan has decided that no tourists will be allowed into the country this summer to physically watch the games. It’s a decision that is being described as disastrous for the country, which has pumped potentially as much as $30 billion into the games — worsened now, without the anticipated return of an economic boost from spectators flooding into the country. But greed has been one of the primary drivers of corruption surrounding the Olympics, and the Tokyo games are now deprived of any major financial incentive beyond the (admittedly not insignificant) broadcasting rights.
As such, there’s now a renewed focus on what the event is supposed to be about in the first place: the unity of joining together, despite everything, for sport. Going forward with the games at all at this point is a statement of pretty much nothing other than stubborn resiliency. “The bottom line, they say, is that it’s better to have the games, even if there are no spectators, than it would be to cancel them because there are no spectators,” former IOC Vice President Dick Pound told Japan’s Kyodo News, although that certainly wasn’t ever the given he made it out to be.
And though there are reasonable concerns about the thousands of athletes and coaches from around the world who will still need to travel to Tokyo, we have a far greater understanding of how to stop the spread of coronavirus than we did this time last year. Robust and rapid testing, global vaccination campaigns, mask usage, and outdoor sporting events will all help curb the potential for outbreaks. Many athletes have already been training under COVID-19 protocols in their home countries; acting in accordance won’t be unfamiliar.
On the flip side, seeing the world’s athletes gathered together helps remind those of us watching at home that ending the pandemic isn’t a national effort, but a global one — truly what better way is there to “build a better world through sport” than that? Athletes and broadcasters have a direct line for setting a “good example” for the public and demonstrating “social responsibility” with their actions, at a time when the world needs to be on the same page about joining together to snuff out COVID-19. Vaccine and public health PSAs can run between the competitions on TV, further leveraging the attention the Olympics draw in a positive and productive way. And the potential for the games to combat xenophobia with on- and off-field moments of camaraderie between competitors is not insignificant.
The 2021 Olympics are primed to be games we remember forever — not because of any specific athletic achievement, but because they’ll stand out for many of us as a defining moment of hope and perseverance, a definitive light at the end of the tunnel. Though the Japanese people are overwhelmingly against holding the games — some 80 percent believe the games should be delayed or canceled — still others see their potential. “Ten years ago there was a nuclear accident so [seeing the Olympic torch], it felt like I could really look forward to something and live,” one Fukushima resident told The Associated Press this week. “When you become my age, this is the last Tokyo Olympics and it’s here. It was very touching.” For the rest of us, it can be something to look forward to, too.
It’s been otherwise too long and dark and divided a year. There has generally been little for the world to feel unified on. Done right, though, the Tokyo Olympics could — unexpectedly — be it.