Which country changed its name to Eswatini in 2018 upon royal decree? Which nation is called “the land of the nomads” in the local tongue? There is only one national flag that doesn’t have four sides, whose is it?
Doubtless you know, the answers are Swaziland, Kazakhstan and Nepal, respectively. I acquired these useless pieces of information – that will likely remain lodged in my hippocampus in favor of other, considerably more utilitarian, units of knowledge – during the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020. That these were the key takeaways from the four-plus-hour opening salvo of the Games, perhaps best highlights the muddled nature of the event.
At the best of times, Olympic ceremonies are a little too self-regarding, painfully patriotic, and ladled with Saturday-night-TV cheese for my liking. That said, when the athletes marched into the empty Japan National Stadium, clad in their respective colors – with the African and Caribbean nations stealing the catwalk – it was a nice homage to the international competition which has been so sparing in pandemic life. Moreover, it was a reminder that these Games still actually involve sports.
Over the past year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the four other Olympic committees, the Games’ sponsors, the Japanese government and anyone else unlucky enough to have been shoved in front of microphones at an Olympic press conference have come in for a flurry of abuse. But the athletes are no longer lost in the Tokyo 2020 narrative. They’re here, they’ve eased the tension in the air, and the time for speculation is officially over.
The “Spectatorless” Games
Perhaps spectators, or lack thereof, are a good place to start with this column; the elephant who was banned from the room, so to speak.
The opening ceremony was the litmus test for the “spectatorless” Games, and was rather cinematic in front of a crowd of zero. Well, zero if you don’t count the emperor, the politicians, the bureaucrats, the journos, the few sponsors who still publicly support the Games and a rather animated Jill Biden.
French President Emmanuel Macron exchanged fist bumps with first lady Jill Biden after the U.S. women’s team won 17-10 against No. 1 ranked France in 3×3 basketball during the sport's Olympic debut at #Tokyo2020 https://t.co/bSIo90GOs3 pic.twitter.com/Br8uLPbfWM
— Reuters (@Reuters) July 24, 2021
In any event, the empty seats gave a certain mystique to the whole affair – especially when Naomi Osaka set a Fuji-shaped cauldron ablaze after enacting that weird slow-motion run that is the oeuvre of all Olympic torchbearers.
I watched the men’s cycling road race the following day; a gruelling 145-mile track, climbing into the Fuji foothills, on a day hot enough to open the gates of Oblivion. I was cramping up just watching the competitors sweat oceans over six long hours in 90% humidity. More jarring yet, were the spectators lining the Shizuoka roadsides and clapping in the eventual victor – Ecuador’s second ever gold medallist, Richard Carapaz – at the Fuji International Speedway.
Shizuoka hasn’t been flagged as one of the danger-zone prefectures for Tokyo 2020. But at just a few hour’s drive from the capital, the logic is odd: prefectural boundaries are arbitrary and don’t inform how a virus decides to propagate. Nevertheless, the lucky few at the venue seemed like they were having a jolly old time indeed.
— AUS Olympic Team (@AUSOlympicTeam) July 26, 2021
Another person who was clearly enjoying themselves was Australian Ariarne Titmus’ swimming coach, Dean Boxall. A man with a shock of Doc Brown-hair, Boxall celebrated his padawan’s 400-meter-freestyle gold on Monday morning with such demonic, Hulk-like intensity I thought he might detonate.
He certainly has across the walls of social media. Co-starring in the viral video was a diminutive Japanese steward whose job it was to usher the vibrating and frothing Boxall back into the designated coaches’ box. She probably hadn’t envisioned dealing with psychotic Aussies when she signed up to be a volunteer, bless her cotton socks.
Aside from being a rollicking laugh, Boxall proved the coaches, team staff and fellow athletes can inject much-needed personality into the stands at these behind-closed-doors Games. And who doesn’t like watching someone go absolutely bananas over an Olympic gold?
Hoping to step out of the #Olympics "bubble" and report on the #Tokyo2020 beyond the Games, foreign reporters were instead ferried by harried organisers from one empty tourist spot to another for two hours.@Reuters @pakwayne https://t.co/Ls5pNq370p
— William Mallard (@BillyMallard) July 20, 2021
The Covid-19 bubble has been another point of fascination at Tokyo 2020. From chatting to some athletes on the “inside,” the atmosphere appears cagey and separatist but a few notches short of all-out paranoia. Some of the journalists are also operating on a stick-to-your-own, tribal mentality, before clearing out the local convenience stores each evening of anything that has an alcohol percentage over 0.5% – then again, you try to prevent journalists from drinking at your peril. The real concern for both parties are the buses shuttling them to and from the venues, where mixing with others is unavoidable.
In recent years, the Games have also become the precursor to a Dionysian orgy. In Tokyo, however, the Olympic Village is a zone of social restrictions, self-imposed and otherwise, and the athletes will reportedly not receive their delegation of five-ringed condoms until they leave. I was disheartened to hear this. My hope was that IOC Chief Thomas Bach would punctuate the opening ceremony by explaining the gymnastics required to use condoms under such no-touching prohibitions. Alas, not all dreams come true.
Thick and Fast
There really is no rest for the weary at the Olympic Games; 29 gold medals were up for grabs on the opening weekend alone. A reminder, more than anything else, that it’s terribly difficult to keep track of everything at Tokyo 2020, and that sports like shooting, artistic swimming and water polo actually exist.
Other sports had their first ever Olympic foray. On Sunday, Yuto Horigome won the inaugural skateboarding gold on home soil. Momiji Nishiya followed it up with another gold for Japan in the women’s skateboarding on Monday.
Horigome is 22-years-old, but looks perhaps 7. Nishiya is 13-years-old, looks not a day over 5. The average age of the women’s skateboarding podium was 14 (technically 13.5). This should be cause for consternation. The Olympics are designed to make you feel physically unaccomplished, but these are the first to make me feel like I’m shuffling off this mortal coil. Perhaps I’ll just watch the dressage from now on, comfortable in the knowledge that at least the horses will likely kick the bucket before I do.
But I digress. There are hundreds more medals to be won over the next two weeks. And hopefully, they won’t all fill me with such existential dread.
Feature image of KRPALEK Lukas (CZE) and HAGA Ryunosuke (JPN) at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro by Petr Toman / Shutterstock.com