With one of the fastest-growing Covid outbreaks in the world, a largely unvaccinated population and a health system on the brink of collapse, the Pacific island nation of Fiji suspended virtually all passenger travel out of the country in early June. Only a small number of emergency flights, such as freight and vital food supplies, were exempt. Which is why, in the early hours of 8 July, the country’s entire Olympic team – including the gold-medal-winning men’s rugby sevens squad – flew to the Olympic Games in Tokyo on a cargo plane full of frozen seafood.
As we finally reach the end of the long and undignified road to the delayed 2020 Olympics, the surreal image of elite athletes travelling to Tokyo surrounded by crates of dead fish provides a fitting motif for a Games in which the distinction between expediency and absurdity has not always been clear.
From the moment the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted that Tokyo 2021 would take place come what may, it essentially held itself hostage to circumstances. Only as athletes, officials and journalists descended on Japan ahead of the opening ceremony on 23 July did we truly discover exactly how weird this is all going to be in practice.
Take the Olympic village, at which Thomas Bach, the IOC president, bullishly promised there would be “zero” risk of athletes transmitting Covid. As of 19 July, three athletes had already tested positive there: two South African footballers and a Czech beach volleyball player. For all three, their Olympic experience is likely to consist of spending 14 days in hard quarantine before flying home. Numerous other competitors, including the American tennis player Coco Gauff, have been forced to pull out before travelling due to contracting the virus. Six members of the British athletics team were forced to isolate after a passenger on their flight tested positive. And all this before a single race, throw, match, dive or whatever it is they have in skateboarding.
Or take the opening ceremony, held at Tokyo’s new 60,000-seat Olympic Stadium, built at a cost of £1bn for a Games that will now take place without any fans. After the ambitious original design by the late Zaha Hadid was scrapped in 2015 amid an outcry over spiralling costs, a cheaper alternative, featuring a distinctive wooden roof, was commissioned from the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to work out what this would mean for the iconic Olympic flame, which normally sits atop the stadium. And so the cauldron will have to be relocated following the opening ceremony to the Tokyo waterfront for fire safety reasons.
To describe the Games as “in crisis” feels woefully inadequate, given that it has existed in a state of permanent crisis for the past 18 months, and is ploughing on regardless. To describe it as “descending into farce” feels equally redundant: that line was likely crossed some time ago. There has probably never been a modern Olympics that has taken place amid such scepticism, ill-will and simple resentment. But out of the chaos and contortions, ironically, a certain clarity has emerged. Never has it been easier to discern the real meaning of the modern Olympics: a movement that for all its layers of fuzzy bullshit has, through coronavirus, been stripped down to its purest essence.
The sole reason these Games are taking place, amid a state of emergency, at ruinous cost and without fans, is that, had the Games been cancelled, the IOC would have had to refund roughly £2.9bn to broadcasters, or almost 75 per cent of its total revenue. By contrast, it is luxuriously relaxed about the loss of ticket sales (around £580m, by some estimates), which is almost entirely absorbed by the host city. And so this is what we have: the world’s most expensive table tennis competition, a sterile, made-for-television entertainment played out in near-silence in front of almost empty stadiums. Almost? Yes, because while spectators are banned, the IOC’s vast entourage of VIPs – committee members, politicians and sponsors, many of whom have been allowed to enter Japan without all the onerous restrictions imposed on athletes and journalists – still get to attend the party. Between 1,000 and 10,000, according to local reports, were due to attend the opening ceremony.
These Games have exposed the many pretensions of the modern Olympics as hollow myths. The idea of the Games as a global carnival, a celebration of sport and culture, an expression of national pride and exuberance, the world’s greatest athletes competing at their peak and enjoying the highest standards of welfare, preparation and fairness: all this, it turns out, was optional. A nice-to-have. What really mattered was the bottom line, the junkets, the ever-expanding empire of patronage and “solidarity payments” disbursed to unaccountable national committees by an unaccountable 102- person IOC executive that wields more power than many governments.
I took the decision not to travel to Tokyo only a couple of weeks ago. The enforced hotel confinement; the potential for infection and quarantine; the restricted access to athletes and venues; the basic joylessness of the working experience – all these were relevant factors. And yet for all this, the decision was tinged with considerable regret. Over the coming weeks, after all, the world will be thrilled and charmed by athletes such as Simone Biles, Dina Asher-Smith and Naomi Osaka, along with a galaxy of stars that have yet to be made. This is the devastating power of the Olympics: for all the waste and immorality and corruption, it remains the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth. It’s only afterwards, once the circus has moved on, that you look around, sniff the air and notice the pervasive smell of dead fish.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century