Sports

Will the troubled Tokyo Olympics bring glory against all odds?

Let the game begin? The locals just want to know when they will finish and what it will cost.

Not so much in yen, but in bigger pictures and meaner numbers. And yet here we are, on the eve of the greatest show on Earth – arguably the greatest ball-up too.

Of course, we’re used to wringing hands at this stage of an Olympic cycle, and we know the feeling that this five-ring circus isn’t always welcome when it pops up in a new city.

Members of China Team Arrive at Narita International Airport Wearing Anti-Covid Masks

Members of China Team Arrive at Narita International Airport Wearing Anti-Covid Masks

But there has never been such a thing. There’s nothing quite like Haneda Airport, which has converted a terminal into a mass testing center for 90,000 athletes, coaches, officials and media. There’s nothing like a host city in a state of emergency, 1,000 new cases a day.

Nothing beats the ripples that spread last Saturday as news broke of the first positive in the athletes’ village. Nothing beats Sunday when six Team GB athletes were pinged. There’s nothing like three days of quarantine in your hotel room and separate elevators. There’s nothing like empty stadiums and scorching temperatures.

And nothing, nothing at all, like a celebration of human brilliance and strength at a time when Covid shows us that we are indeed very small and vulnerable.

But the Games are here, just like the contracts said they had to. Is it right? Probably not. Can sport justify the risk to lives? Perhaps only Thomas Bach, an IOC president obsessed with ideas of his own greatness, could make that argument. Coincidentally, he also called the Japanese “Chinese” last week.

Andy Murray practices in Tokyo as he prepares to defend his Olympic tennis title

Andy Murray practices in Tokyo as he prepares to defend his Olympic tennis title

As with a few things, Adam Peaty put it perhaps best: “Of course you have to think about the people who live here. At the other end of the spectrum, you have to have an awareness and respect for the athletes who have trained every day for five years, get up at 5am and go to bed at 10:30pm with a screaming baby. I’m biased because I want them to happen. I can also sympathize with the home country that does not want the Games to take place at all. You never get the right answer.’

But maybe sports can provide the best of the wrong answers. Perhaps in its triviality it can be very important. An uplifting, inspiring force. It has that power, shown time and again through crazy, brilliant games and within sports there isn’t much as crazy or brilliant as the Olympics.

And that’s because of those who make it special and their stories. Once we park the pomposity and absurdities of those who own the stage, erect it and market it big, we can really appreciate the qualities of those who perform on it.

Within parochial lines, it’s about guys like Peaty, who gets more attention every four (or five) years, reminding us that in his world he’s a ruler of near-tyrannical dominance. Unbeaten in every 100-meter breaststroke race of interest since 2014, gold definitely feels. That’s his personality and talent, he says he feels like a ‘god’ as he strides towards his blocks. He is a gift that keeps on giving and keeps on winning.

Protesters call for Tokyo Olympics to be canceled amid Japan's coronavirus crisis

Protesters call for Tokyo Olympics to be canceled amid Japan’s coronavirus crisis

There is no one like him from these parts, and yet there are many other jobs, each at the right time to be at their brightest right now. You have the wonders of the Kenny family, Laura and Jason, and their 10 gold cycling medals. What about Helen Glover, three kids after her second Olympic rowing title? Could Dina Asher-Smith become Britain’s first female sprint medalist since 1960?

Then there’s Jonny Brownlee and Family Shadows and Opportunities, and Jade Jones who says anything less than a third taekwondo gold in consecutive Games would be a “failure.”

Further afield, the Games are about gymnast Simone Biles and human flight. And Noah Lyles and the question of whether he can sprint into the hole left by Usain Bolt. He probably can’t, and is that a problem?

Are we in a transitional phase during these Games, with a painful void left beyond Biles by the retired, transcendent superstars in Bolt and Michael Phelps? It kind of feels that way, but in other ways these Olympics are loaded with deeper contexts.

Since Rio, we’ve known the escalation of activism and movements that, in a sensible world, would fit comfortably with Olympic ideals. But somehow Bach and his merry band have clouded that message. They don’t want athletes kneeling on the podium, but it would be lovely to see such a nonsensical attitude challenged. Adam Gemili, the British sprinter, is ready if he gets the chance.

American gymnast Simone Biles adds superstar glamor to Tokyo Games

American gymnast Simone Biles adds superstar glamor to Tokyo Games

Speaking out was a theme of this Olympic cycle, in all sorts of serious discussions. In the years between Rio and now, Biles was part of that cohort of brave American gymnasts who revealed the horrors of serial abuser Larry Nassar and his enablers. With every somersault and twist, she symbolizes something significantly bigger than great gymnastics.

Closer to home, we’ve also had the crisis of athlete well-being and conversations about what’s acceptable in the pursuit of medals. From gymnastics to cycling to canoeing and various intermediate points, there have been disturbing revelations and all sorts of reviews and soul-searching.

UK Sport are talking about a better approach these days, but will they keep their word when it comes to funding teams that don’t live up to expectations? Will viewers and media be as tolerant as the results are mediocre after two decades of escalating success? Time will tell.

And also how the confused circumstances of the Games and Covid will affect who wins what. Laura Muir, 1500m contender, suffered a calf injury in 2020 and is doing well in 2021; Katarina Johnson-Thompson would have been a strong contender for heptathlon gold in 2020, but in 2021 she will be looking for form after a ruptured Achilles tendon. What a terrible piece of fate if she never gets an Olympic medal after so many other struggles.

That’s just dumb luck. But what about the cynical exploits of this difficult time? Drug testing has been scaled back massively in the 18 months of the pandemic, and at the best of times, the cheats have always been tempted. As always, we’ll have to question some of what we’re seeing in between discussions about resilient running shoes.

Noah Lyles faces the huge challenge of filling the gap left by sprinting legend Usain Bolt

Noah Lyles faces the huge challenge of filling the gap left by sprinting legend Usain Bolt

Sometimes the quirky stories are just as fun as the sport. Remember your Bryony page? She’s trampoline jumping here again, five years after winning silver, and then she explained that she was an expert on dinosaur sounds outside of sports.

Sometimes the stories are just absurd. Do you remember Ryan Lochte, the American swimmer, and the saga of if he did a gun robbery in Rio?

Sometimes it’s all a bit uncomfortable. Remember that short film released in 2020 by the Sky Brown team after the British skateboarder suffered a horrific fall? It showed part of the crash, then some ambulances, covered in the sound of a heart monitor, before fading to utter a motivational message from her hospital bed.

She is a great talent and as the youngest member of Team GB, the 13-year-old could also win gold. But decisions around the production and placement of that video leave a strange taste.

Of course, the Olympics can be all of the above and more. A little weird, a little exaggerated, a little outrageous, and often times they are utterly and completely awesome, in victories and defeats and as a distraction from more important things.

It’s hard to say they’ll be worth the risk in light of what’s going on in Japan and the world. But they will always be worth enjoying, maybe now as much as ever.

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