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A FRAUGHT OLYMPICS BEGINS, REFLECTING A TANGLED WORLD
Only the autocrats and money men think the Greed Games are a good idea, and if we hope that athletes and performances will carry Tokyo, the health risks and general joylessness are overwhelming
In 50 or 100 years, assuming Planet Earth hasn’t exploded in a nuclear fireball and still rotates on its axis, scholars will ask a great question: Why were the Tokyo Olympics staged amid a global pandemic? A professor who has done sufficient homework will reply in the snarkiest, smart-ass-ish tone possible: Because, kids, the self-interests of Big Sports and Media colluded to override a health crisis, ignore a state of emergency, trample a helpless Asian nation and recoup megabillions no matter who got sick or died.
Hence, The Greed Games.
They’re actually going through with this, aren’t they? If one function of an Olympiad is to reflect the world condition within a particular timeslice, then the next 16 days certainly will serve as a mirror. Just as we’re living hour to hour in 2021, not sure where life and disease and political influences are taking us, the Games are a fraught venture into the unknown. Normally an uplifting festival filled with joy, hope and convivial unity, this ill-advised convergence of 15,000 athletes and 70,000 related personnel is as cold, calculated and convoluted as the corporate world itself, a survivalist trudge through the ever-raging coronavirus without fans, emotion, radiance or optimism. In haunting retrospect, the International Olympic Committee could have conducted the event on a soundstage anywhere — say, in a remote field isolated from the threats of COVID-19 hotspots and variant whiparounds — and at least tried to protect Japan from a superspread.
But the priority is not human life. The priority is the multi-billion-dollar grab. The IOC needs its slice. NBC needs its slice. Tokyo, on the hook for $15 billion in preparation investments, needs whatever slice is left. So what we have is a made-for-TV slog, with no grander goal beyond taking the money and getting out of Dodge before infection numbers and hospitalization counts render the Games uncontrollable. With competition officially underway after a subdued (and sometimes protocol-flouting) Opening Ceremony in a near-empty National Stadium, there’s a better chance of coverage host Mike Tirico morphing into a journalistic presence such as Jim McKay — I can’t take another minute of Tirico’s happy, oblivious-to-reality shilling — than the IOC, NBC and local organizers canceling what smacks of a disaster-in-waiting.
In the highest levels of Japanese government, they are well aware of the fierce, palpable outcry. They justify the furor with a dream from a stupor. “Over four million people across the world will be watching these Olympic Games,’’ Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said. “In that context, overcoming the hardship of the coronavirus and to be able to hold the Games, I think there is real value in that.’’
And they claim to be prepared to shut down the Games if necessary, with Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto saying, “We can't predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases. So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases. We have agreed that based on the situation, we will convene talks again. At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises."
But Japan is not running this show, understand. The ringleader is the German lawyer and former Olympic fencer, IOC president Thomas Bach, who is so hellbent on moving forward with the Greed Games and swinging his long sword at all dissenters that he thinks his five-star hotel is in … China? Already considered evil by a local populace that wants no part of this charade, Bach said at a public appearance, “Our common target is safe and secure Games for everybody — for the athletes, for all the delegations, and most importantly, also for the Chinese people.’’ He corrected himself, but the damage was done. He doesn’t care about the people of Japan, only the money has can extract out of Japan. Snafu aside, Bach is the nation’s almighty ruler until the Closing Ceremony, with Suga reduced to a cheerleading, COVID-flouting underling.
The Japanese populace is rightfully aghast at the brazenness of it all. When Tokyo was awarded the Games, the mission was to celebrate the renaissance of a country battered by a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear catastrophe. Instead, one meltdown has bled into another. Wrote the local Asahi newspaper in a blistering editorial: “The mindset that the Olympics can be pushed through by force and that everyone should obey the order has invited this mess.’’
In essence, Tokyo 2020 — they have allowed the calendar to pause, even creepier — is a referendum on the future of the Olympic movement. If Bach and his IOC flunkies are willing to risk lives and the organization’s credibility to present these Games, how desperate are they to protect a brand that is waning? True, the IOC is assured of $7.75 billion from NBC through the 2032 Games. But hosting the Games no longer guarantees an economic boon for a city as much as a longstanding nightmare, with devastating cost overruns and rotting venues blunting the fun memories. The presence of a pandemic — and whatever other calamities await the planet — only has weakened interest. Brisbane will host the 2032 Summer Games because no other city wanted to bid. Plus, what is $7.75 billion when the NFL is raking in $113 billion in its latest broadcast-rights bonanza? Seems King Thomas let his professional ego interfere with bigger life logic.
And the TV ratings? When every other major sports event has suffered viewership declines, some massive, why would Tokyo be different? Americans are enjoying a summer outdoors after months of lockdowns. Some prominent events, such as the coronation of Simone Biles as the all-time gymnastics queen, will be televised in the U.S. in the morning hours. And with the sad, predictable drumbeat of COVID stories consuming the run-up to the Games, a lot of us are agreeing with Bob Costas, who would be shooting straight as the usual Olympics host if NBC hadn’t elbowed him aside for Tirico, the company-man IOC propagandist. Appearing with Stephen Colbert on rival network CBS, Costas said postponing the Games another year would have been “the best thing’’ for numerous reasons.
“I realize the variants have added a different aspect to it, but there’s reason to believe that a year from now, the situation would be more under control,” Costas said. “You could have spectators in the stands; a larger percentage of the Japanese populace would be vaccinated. So that would have been ideal, and it would have gone back to the old model where the Winter and Summer Olympics were the same year.”
Stop making sense, Bob. The money people are of only one mind. “We promised the world to host the Games,” said Seiko Hashimoto, the organizing committee president. “We have to complete our mission.”
We would like to believe that the athletes, as always, can overcome the five-ringed troubles with their stories and brilliant performances. They’re the ones squarely at risk in the COVID Watch, yet they’ve come to Tokyo anyway to fulfill their dreams. There is plenty of appeal in watching them try. We know of Biles — but will she be endangered by the positive test of teammate Kara Eaker? We know of Katie Ledecky and Allyson Felix, and we’re about to discover Caeleb Dressel and Nyjah Huston. The U.S. is expected to lead the medals count, for the seventh straight Olympics, and that will make America feel good.
But how good? Activism soon will enter the Tokyo fray, the same racial protests that dominated 2020 in America. And while the IOC actually has given leeway in allowing kneeling prior to events, any demonstrations afterward — specifically, on the medals stand — is subject to Bachian sanctions. LeBron James already has expressed his disapproval, though he isn’t playing for Team USA. See where this is going in a sweltering host city?
Already, the prominent image is that of the heavily favored U.S. women’s soccer team, in an empty facility, losing 3-0 to Sweden and ending a 44-match loss-less streak. That quickly, a heavy-rotation, hype-and-ad blitz starring Megan Rapinoe was diluted. “We got our asses kicked, didn’t we?” she said. “I thought we were a little tight, a little nervous, just doing dumb stuff.’’
That wasn’t her most telling comment. Asked if the Tokyo Games feel like the Olympics, she said, “Literally, no fanfare.’’
For that, we can thank King Thomas Bach, the autocrat who might be remembered, in those future history classes, as the man whose audacity ruined the Games we once knew and loved.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.