The most troubled Olympics in modern history finally open in Tokyo on Friday, struggling to shake off lingering virus fears after a one-year postponement and a build-up marred by scandal and controversy.
Eight years after Japanese newscasters shed tears as Tokyo celebrated winning the right to stage the Games, Friday’s opening ceremony will take place before empty stands and with the city in a state of emergency.
Fears that the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could trigger a super-spreader event have prompted organizers to clamp the Games in a biosecure straitjacket.
Overseas fans are banned for the first time ever and domestic spectators will be kept out of all but a handful of venues.
Athletes, support staff and media are subject to strict Covid-19 protocols, including regular testing and daily health checks.
Polls have consistently found a majority of Japanese are against the Games, with opinion ranging from weary indifference to outright hostility.
But in the hours before the opening ceremony, there were glimmers of excitement building, with thousands turning out in Tokyo to watch an aerial display by the Japanese air force’s Blue Impulse team.
“Before the Olympics began I expected the atmosphere to be a little sad,” said Maki Hasumoto, 25, as she waited for the display.
“But now it’s very atmospheric and now I’m looking forward to it.”
Friday is a national holiday in Japan and families set up picnic blankets in Tokyo parks to watch the jets draw the Olympic rings in coloured smoke.
“It’s impressive here. It really feels like the Olympics is going to start,” added 38-year-old Megumi Taguchi.
Nearby, locals patiently lined up in the heat to take photos in front of the Olympic rings mounted next to the stadium that will host this evening’s opening extravaganza.
Traditionally a highlight of any Summer Games, featuring the parade of nations and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, Tokyo’s opening ceremony will be drastically pared back.
Fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and officials will be present at the 68,000-seat stadium when events get under way at 8pm local time.
Most world leaders have opted to stay away, though US First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron – whose country will host the 2024 Paris Olympics – will be in the stands along with Japan’s Emperor Naruhito.
But in a sign of how divisive the Games remain, several top sponsors including Toyota and Panasonic will not be sending executives.
A few hundred protesters demonstrated against the Games on Friday morning near the Tokyo government building where Governor Yuriko Koike welcomed the Olympic flame.
“Even though the pandemic continues, we will hold a safe and secure Games,” Koike said.
“We are determine to see it through. Today is the first step towards that.”
Tokyo is battling a surge in virus cases, and is under emergency measures that means bars and restaurants must shut by 8pm and cannot sell alcohol.
Dogged by controversy
But Olympic officials have put a brave face on the unusual circumstances, with IOC chief Bach insisting cancellation was never on the table.
“Over the past 15 months we had to take many decisions on very uncertain grounds,” he said this week. “We had doubts every day. There were sleepless nights.
“We can finally see at the end of the dark tunnel. Cancellation was never an option for us. The IOC never abandons the athletes … we did it for the athletes.”
There are also hefty financial incentives in play. Insiders estimate the IOC would have been on the hook for about US$1.5 billion in lost broadcasting revenues if the Games had been cancelled.
The pandemic has not been the only hiccup in preparations though, with scandals ranging from corruption during the bidding process to plagiarism allegations over the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo.
The controversies kept coming right up to the eve of the Games, with the opening ceremony’s director sacked on Thursday for making a joke referencing the Holocaust in a video from 1998.
Back in the sporting arenas, a new generation of Olympic stars are looking to shine after a decade dominated by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.
US swimmer Caeleb Dressel could target seven gold medals, and in track and field, 400-meter hurdlers Karsten Warholm of Norway and the USA’s Sydney McLaughlin are among those hoping to emerge as household names.
Gymnastics, meanwhile, will see Simone Biles attempt to crown her dazzling career by equalling Larisa Latynina’s record of nine Olympic gold medals.
New Olympic sports will also be on display in Tokyo, with surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate all making their debut. – AFP
Motor racing-Mercedes to leave Formula E after 2022
Formula E champions Mercedes will withdraw from the all-electric series at the end of the Gen2 era in 2022 to concentrate on Formula One, the carmaker said on Wednesday.
The announcement comes three days after Dutch driver Nyck de Vries won the Formula E world championship title after finishing eighth in the season’s final race in Berlin, with Mercedes also winning the teams’ title after Stoffel Vandoorne’s third place.
“Mercedes-Benz today announced that it will conclude its ABB FIA Formula E success story as a team entrant and manufacturer at the end of Season 8, in August 2022,” the manufacturer said in a statement https://www.mercedes-benz.com/en/eq-formulae/we-race-the-city/team/team-news/concluding-formula-e-success-story.
“Moving forward, the company will concentrate its works motorsport activities on Formula 1, reinforcing the sport’s status as the fastest laboratory for developing and proving sustainable and scalable future performance technologies.”
In December, German manufacturers Audi and BMW confirmed they would exit Formula E at the end of this year.
Mercedes announced a new strategic direction for its brand in July, with the aim of going all-electric by the end of the decade.
“As part of the new strategic direction, the brand has deliberately chosen to shift resources for this accelerated ramp-up of electrification, including the development of three electric-only architectures to be launched in 2025,” the carmaker said.
“Therefore, Mercedes will reallocate resource away from its ABB FIA Formula E World Championship programme and towards applying the lessons learned in competition to product development in series.” REUTERS
Tokyo Hands Olympic Baton to Beijing but Virus and Boycott Calls Weigh
American Nelly Korda wins gold in women’s golf as Japan’s Mone Inami takes silver
Japan’s Mone Inami came up a stroke short in her bid to win gold on home soil, finishing a shot back of world No. 1 Nelly Korda of the U.S. in the final round of the women’s golf tournament on Saturday at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Inami defeated New Zealand’s Lydia Ko in a playoff to claim silver.
Inami fired a stellar six-under 65 in the final round to put herself in contention, but Korda, the overnight leader, was steady throughout and finished with a 69 in her final round. Inami wavered on the final hole, coming home with a bogey to end on 16-under. Korda, playing in the group behind her, made par to secure the gold medal at 17-under.
In the playoff, Inami made par on the 18th hole and watched as Ko’s par save slipped just past the hole.
India’s Aditi Ashok, the world No. 200, was a surprise fourth-place finisher.
The ‘Nolympians’ giving the IOC a run for its money
Long before Tokyo 2020 was saddled with cost overruns, scandals over sexism and fears it would turn into a COVID-19 super-spreader event, anti-Olympics activists were already calling the whole thing a disaster.
That was why one year before the pandemic-hit Games were originally slated to open in late July 2020, anti-Olympic activists convened in Japan for the first ever global summit of “NOlympians”, as those opposed to the Games are known.
The pow-wow of NOlympians signalled that once ad hoc localised opposition to Olympic events had gone global.
“We shouldn’t see the anti-[Olympics] movements [as] being isolated and divided according to nations and cities,” said Hiroki Ogasawara, a professor in sociology and cultural studies at Japan’s Kobe University, “because the protest is already worldwide and the Olympics inevitably involve global scale wrongdoings, too.”
Dozens of activists from host cities past (London, Rio de Janeiro and Pyeongchang, South Korea) and future (Paris and Los Angeles) were joined in the Japanese capital by those bracing for a bid by their cities, including Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
“That was a pivotal moment,” Jules Boykoff, a participant and professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon in the United States told Al Jazeera. What Boykoff previously called “a moment of movements” had blossomed into a transnational coalition with staying power.
Boykoff, an Olympian turned critic, says that because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is “a multibillion-dollar behemoth” those opposed to it have realised, “the only way to fight is to become more mobile with their dissent”.
Founded in 1894, the IOC is a non-profit that serves as the governing body of Olympics committees in each of its member countries with a mission to distribute the billions in revenue from broadcasting and marketing to sports development. Its executive board is formed of members drawn from the global business elite.
In Asia, Japan has hosted the most Olympic events – the Games that kicked off on July 23 were its fourth in 50 years.
While the 1964 Games have generally been portrayed positively – a showcase of the technological prowess and design brilliance of post-war Japan and its debut on the world stage – not everyone holds such a rosy view of later Olympics.
Of the two main anti-Games groups spawned by Tokyo 2020, one is called Okotowa Link, which means “Olympic Disasters”.
The Japanese activists had a litany of concerns concerning the event from the demolition of affordable housing to the removal of street sleepers and the transformation of the world-famous Tsukiji fish market into a parking lot for the National Stadium.
In an era where activism is increasingly global and finding momentum online – from the #MeToo movement to Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter – it is hard to recall the days when grassroots organising spread one leaflet at a time.
That was how Helen Jefferson Lenskyj and her fellow activists at Bread Not Circuses got their start in the late 1980s when Toronto vied first for the 1996 Games and then for the 2008 event. While her city’s repeated bids called for a sustained campaign, Lenskyj notes how the anti-Olympics movement has since grown.
“It’s definitely gathered strength,” said Lenskyj, now professor emerita of social justice education at the University of Toronto. “With social media and more effective use of the internet, the growing problem of huge debts and expensive venues, the legacy that never materialised, there’s growing disillusionment.”
The Canadian anti-Games activists were the first to launch the Poverty Olympics Torch Relay, in which the torch is fashioned from a toilet plunger. And an annual NOlympics day was marked every late June to galvanise opposition worldwide.
The Games’ human costs, including the massive disruption to the lives of residents and heightened police surveillance, stand in stark contrast with the corporate interests of the Olympics boosters. Typically, they are the business and political elites who have the most to gain from brand sponsorships, white-elephant building projects and lucrative service contracts.
“I call this trickle-up economics,” said Boykoff. “It’s a massive economic juggernaut; the sports are incidental.”
Over the past few years, citizens have become increasingly resistant to hosting the sporting extravaganza, with some Western countries putting the decision to voters in a referendum.
One by one, potential bid cities have been eliminated by “no” votes from Boston in the US to Krakow in Poland.
In 2015, in the leadup to the IOC awarding the 2022 Winter Games, only two candidate cities were left standing: Almaty and Beijing.
Authoritarian countries have long seen the Games as a form of “soft power”, while the IOC has sought to frame the event as a force for good that transcends politics.
In 2001, when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics despite concerns over China’s human rights record, the IOC claimed hosting would help usher in an era of greater freedom.
Seven years later, artist Ai Weiwei, the man who had helped design the centrepiece Bird’s Nest stadium, was persecuted by authorities for his political activism, and Beijing won its bid for the 2022 Winter Games three weeks after a nationwide round-up of human rights lawyers and their staff.
With less than seven months to go, Beijing’s mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims and its crackdown in Hong Kong are fuelling calls from Europe and North America for a boycott.
Meanwhile, the dwindling number of cities prepared to bid for the event has spurred the IOC to act. Its Agenda 2020 called for transparency, sustainability and flexibility. Critics, however, say the organisation is incapable of genuine reform.
“The IOC has a democratic deficit,” said Boykoff, adding that it was ruled “with an iron fist.”
In response to the rising NOlympics backlash, the IOC has accelerated the process for naming host cities.
In an unprecedented move in 2017, it doled out a twin award to the remaining candidates: giving the 2024 Summer Games to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles.
And just before the Tokyo Olympics got under way, the IOC announced the host for 2032 – Brisbane in Australia, the only contender. Previously, the host city was selected only seven years before the Games were due to start.
For now, activists’ rallying cry of “NOlympics anywhere” may seem a long shot, but as the memory of two weeks of sporting spectacle begins to fade and Tokyo assesses the Games’ longer-term effect, it seems likely the rumblings of discontent that follow the IOC will only grow – as will the movement.
“The anti-Olympics campaign has a significant impact in raising local residents’ consciousness on what human rights will be violated and what they would have to suffer to have the Olympics,” Lenskyj said.
Welcome to Tokyo’s five-ring Olympic circus
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have been plagued by defiled graves, bribes, lies, outbreaks of Covid-19, colossal mistakes and mysterious deaths.
At the massively expensive Olympic Stadium, when they light the Olympic flame on Friday night, reflect on one thing. The architects originally forgot to put a place for the stand in their designs, which wasn’t noticed until 2016.
Even the opening ceremonies have been a fiasco before they started. The original music composer had to resign after his history of gleefully torturing the disabled became an issue. The former comedian turned director of the pre-game show was fired because of his past Holocaust jokes.
There are reports that the new music will be provided by an ultra-nationalist composer who denies the existence of comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre. That may not go over well with Japan’s neighbors.
It seems like the games are cursed – and former Prime Minister Taro Aso has said so publicly. If something can go wrong it will. Is it supernatural bad luck or just the karma of the organizers?
At Asia Times we’ve decided to chronicle the series of unfortunate events that led us up to this day of days, not necessarily in chronological order, but in a way that you can meditate on the mandala of misfortune that is the Tokyo 2020 Five-Ring Circus. Can things get better?
Will the opening of the Olympics be prying open an already damaged Pandora’s Box or will it somehow release “fighting spirit” to save the day?
The Big Lie (2013)
Shortly, after taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his second time at bat, began pushing to have Tokyo host the 2020 Olympics. Naoki Inose, the governor of Tokyo, had his back.
At a September general meeting of the International Olympic Committee, Abe made a bold appeal to host the games. When concerns were raised about the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that had happened less than two years earlier, Abe confidently said, “Fukushima is under control.”
It wasn’t and it isn’t now. In two years, Japan will start dumping radioactive water that has been piling up on site into our oceans. The clean-up will take decades.
The bribes (2013)
It wasn’t until 2019, that it was reported that French prosecutors have investigated the head of the Japan Olympic Committee, for bribing former members of the IOC. At least two million dollars was allegedly spent buying off former IOC officials so that they lobbied African nations to vote for Japan’s 2013 Olympic bid.
Reuters later reports that even more millions were spent currying favor and paid out to a former executive of Dentsu, Japan’s incredibly powerful advertising agency.
Speaking of bribes, Tokyo Governor Inose, who helped secure the Olympics, was forced to step down after being accused of accepting a 50,000,000 yen ($450,000) contribution from a medical consortium. Just like Abe, he wouldn’t survive in office long enough to boast about the success of the Games.
Skeletons in the closet (2013)
In November of 2019, it was finally reported that 187 human bodies had been excavated between 2013 and 2015 from the construction site of Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium. The bad news (and the bones) had been covered up for years.
Apparently, the Olympic organizers had built over an Edo era cemetery. Did anyone do the proper Buddhist rituals to quell the spirits of the dead? Nobody knows.
Like the movie Poltergeist, are the angry ghosts of the displaced now cursing the games? We know that many who were evicted from their apartments in the area to make room for the stadium are cursing the Games, but they’re still alive.
The Olympic emblem created by an elite former advertising agency man turns out to be a rip-off of a Belgian theatre emblem. With much haste, a new Olympics emblem had to be resigned.
When the in-house newspaper of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan later did a parody of the emblem, which likened it to the Covid-19 virus structure, the Japan Olympic Committee forced them to pulp the magazines.
It’s a curse to have no sense of humor.
Back to the drawing board (2015)
In July, The Olympic Stadium plans of famous female architect, Zaha Adid, were rejected as the building costs ostensibly were out of control. In reality, it’s probably because the architect was not Japanese, and she was a woman. A famous Japanese male architect was chosen to do the design, which some have said, resembles a rip-off of Zaha Hadid’s design.
Everybody dies (2013-2021)
The architect Hadid did not take kindly to her design being rejected and went to court with the Japan Sports Council. But while the courtroom battle was waging, she suddenly died in the spring of 2016. Hers wasn’t the last death.
As the fever pace to complete the stadium mounted, in March of 2017, a freshly hired construction company employee, 23, killed himself after mental and physical exhaustion in a horrifying case of “Karoshi” – death by overwork. He logged 190 hours of overtime in a 30-day period before his death.
In May of 2020, the 54-year old owner of a fried pork cutlets restaurant, who was scheduled to be one of the Olympic Torch Relay runners, torched himself to death. Due to Covid-19, the Olympics had been postponed, he had to close down his shop and was in deep despair.
In June of 2021, an accountant for the Japan Olympic Committee killed himself by jumping in front of a train on the Asakusa line. Did he know something about the bribes? People began asking, will the accounting ledgers for the Tokyo Olympics be burned, like they were for the Nagano Winter Olympics?
The Japanese media has politely not followed the story. The Japan Olympic Committee refuses to discuss it.
Smells worse than fishy (2017-2021)
In 2017, the swimming area set aside for the triathlon near Odaiba was found to be polluted with fecal matter and not safe to swim in. It turns out that in times of heavy rain, the sewage system overflows into the pool area. The problem is allegedly fixed but the New York Post and the Korean Press have been reporting, “The area smells like a sewer” – even now.
The coronavirus outbreak was a curse for the world, but the government of Japan, desperate to hold the Olympics, downplayed the virus, under-tested and was slow to take action. Even in early March of 2020, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, said, “It’s inconceivable that we don’t hold the Olympics this year.”
The day after the Olympics were postponed, the number of Covid-19 cases in Tokyo mysteriously surged and Koike discussed having a lockdown and the “Covid-19 infection explosion.”
Japan, eager to put on a good face and host the Games no matter what, has haphazardly handled the virus, which has resulted in more than 15,000 deaths now, the worst in East Asia.
In contrast, Korea has had a little over 2,000 deaths. Vietnam, which has a population of 95 million (Japan 126 million) has only had 370 deaths.
Despite warnings, and even a scolding from the Emperor, the “safe and secure” Games are going forward, even while outbreaks continue in the Olympic Village and Tokyo hospital beds are now in short supply.
The army of the unlucky
It’s hard to keep track of all those involved in the Olympics who have been fired or forced to resign from their jobs since Japan won the bid, but here’s a partial list with their misdeeds. However, some of these unfortunate souls may still be haunting the Games.
Yoshiro Mori, former prime minister, head of the Tokyo Olympic Committee (sexist remarks)
Keigo Oyamada, original composer for the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies (abusing disabled children in the past)
Shinzo Abe, now honorary advisor to the Olympics (resigned as PM ostensibly because of stomach problems, but was also under investigation for election law violations)
Hiroshi Sasaki, former Olympics creative director (planning an opening ceremony skit that would ridicule obese people)
Tsunekazu Takeda, former president of The Japan Olympic Committee (allegations of giving bribes and corruption)
Most expensive summer Games
The price of hosting the Olympics and Paralympics has astronomically increased from 734 billion yen ($6.67 billion) when the bid was made. Last December, the Japanese government estimated it will cost about $154 billion.
That’s a huge cost overrun. Part of the high costs might have come from a vice-president of the Japan Olympic Committee having reported ties to the largest yakuza group in Japan, but who really knows?
The cost to Japan’s public image from these mishandled Games is probably incalculable.
Too damn hot
Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “Hell is other people” and in a Covid-19 infested Tokyo, that rings truer than ever but it’s also true that Tokyo summers feel like being in an inferno.
If “Fukushima is under control” was the biggest lie told by Japan in this decade, the second can be found in Tokyo’s original bid for the 2020 Games. They claimed July 24 to August 9 is a great time for sports “With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”
Anyone who lives here knows this isn’t true. With a heat index of 101 degrees and thousands hospitalized with heat-stroke each summer, Tokyo summers are not ideal for anything. That’s why the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October.
By 2019, Tokyo had to sort of admit it had lied and began trying out a coating on the marathon roads to reduce the heat. In August, it was reported that it had a reverse effect, making the temperatures rise 2.6 degrees celsius at 150 centimeters above the ground, and increasing damage from UV rays. The IOC later ignored Tokyo Governor Koike and moved the marathon to northern Japan’s Sapporo City.
In these “cursed” Olympics, athletes and participants face the double-threat of Covid-19 infections and/or heat-stroke.
Let the Games begin.
Tokyo Is Facing a Record COVID-19 Surge. One Thing That Could Slow It? Japan’s Olympic Athletes Losing
Tokyo is facing its worst COVID-19 surge yet, with cases hitting a six-month high on Thursday—just one day before the the Opening Ceremony.
However, one Japanese infectious disease expert is worried that situation could get even worse if Japan’s Olympic athletes frequently reach the medal podium.
“If Japanese athletes win lots of gold medals, and there’s a euphoric atmosphere, then people may go out and eat and drink together and break the rules, in the Tokyo area particularly,” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University, tells TIME.
He points to the rise in coronavirus infections in some places in Europe following the Euro 2020 soccer championship, which Italy won.
Iwata, who has been a frequent critic of the decision to hold the Games in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, adds that that doesn’t mean that he hopes Japan loses. He wishes for the best performance of all the athletes at the Games.
“But if Japanese athletes don’t win that much, and the number of the COVID-19 keeps rising, day-by-day, then people may become frustrated and be pessimistic, then that might ironically suppress the risk of COVID-19,” he says.
Case numbers in Tokyo have almost tripled to nearly 2,000 a day since the start of July; the Olympics host city reported fewer than 675 cases on July 1.
Hitoshi Oshitani, the virologist who helped devise Japan’s COVID-19 strategy, says he expects this wave, the fifth Japan has faced, to be its worst. That’s in part due to the more contagious Delta variant, but also because it’s becoming much harder to persuade residents to stay home and observe social distancing.
“It’s getting difficult to convince people to change their behavior, especially the young ones. They’re getting tired of just staying at home,” says Oshitani. “The government and experts are asking people to stay at home, but at the same time, we have a big, big festival, a global event.”
Japan declared a state of emergency earlier this month, which includes a request for restaurants to close at 8 p.m. and for bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol in an effort to keep people from celebrating during the Games.
“Even if the restaurants are closed, I’m sure they’re having a party at home, or some other places,” says Oshitani. “The control of this virus is getting more difficult.”
Also at play may be the slow rate of vaccinations. About 23% of people in Japan have been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. Many of those vaccinated so far are older people and healthcare workers, and this surge appears to be driven by younger people.
Oshitani expects cases to continue to rise in the coming days, but he says that may not be reflected in reported case numbers until next week, given that testing might decline as the result of a four-day holiday weekend, which began on July 22.
Still, Japan has handled the pandemic better than many nations. The country of 126 million people has had around 860,000 cases and just over 15,000 deaths.
As of Friday, 110 people linked to the Games—including athletes, members of the media and staff—have tested positive for the virus. But a strict set of rules laid out by organizers means that overseas visitors will stay in as much of a bubble as possible, and they will limit interaction with locals.
Just hours before the Opening Ceremony, protesters gathered outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building holding signs that read things like, “Cancel the Tokyo Olympics.”
Oshitani says the risk remains that those coming in from other countries might introduce new strains of the virus to the country via Japanese people working in the Olympic Village, or doing jobs like driving buses transporting athletes.
No matter what impact the Olympics has on the coronavirus situation in Japan, Oshitani cautions that the country’s battle against the virus will continue for the foreseeable future.
“Even after the Olympics we have to deal with this virus,” he says, “and like many countries we are trying to find the best strategy to cope with this virus in the coming months and years.”
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