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How the madcap, made-for-meme Olympics won me over

Athletes, pundits and the viewing billions around the world will all have their favourite moments of the Tokyo 2020 Games: even, secretly, those who condemn the International Olympic Committee as venal peacocks and see Japan as barmy for hosting the Games in a pandemic.

The Olympic project, you realise once accredited and inside its track-suited and navy-blazered embrace, is a single-minded confectioner of high-calorie memory morsels. So, by design, there are a good few to choose from. The Italian high jumper leaping with maskless abandon into the arms of his Qatari rival on agreeing to share the gold medal; a tearful Hidilyn Diaz declaring her medal was “for all Filipino people” after breaking a weightlifting record and winning her country’s first Olympic gold; the mountainous discus-thrower Daniel Stahl screaming “I’m a Swedish Viking!” before lolloping through the stadium to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” like a drunken uncle at Thor’s wedding. All perfect, made-for-meme stuff.

For me, after two weeks criss-crossing a city I thought I knew rather better, the finest few minutes by far were Sena Irie laying out her career options after becoming Japan’s first woman to win a boxing gold. Her gloves will be hung up after university and job-hunting will now begin in earnest, the 20-year-old student said with an exuberance that should be infused into the nation’s drinking water.

“I’ll maybe look for some work involving frogs . . . or perhaps at a video game company,” Irie informed dour fight reporters and the silver medallist, whose face she had only recently stopped punching.

The reason Irie’s joy felt so important was that it began, slightly, to answer the “is it all really worth it?” question that has hung over these hot, spectator-free, $25bn Games as their preparations have run the gauntlet of pandemic, public opposition and scandal.

Boxer Sena Irie, the first Japanese woman to win gold in the sport © Luis Robayo/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Weightlifting gold medallist Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines © AP/Luca Bruno

By deciding to hold the postponed Olympics this year and in defiance of medical advice, Tokyo faced three prevailing risks. The first, plainly, was the danger, distress and political deafness of cajoling the world’s biggest metropolis into a two-week game of chicken with a killer virus that loves a party. The second was whether the strictures concocted to enable that game of chicken — rigorous testing, no-nonsense quarantine policies, zero audiences, etc — would so severely harm the event as to render the enterprise pointless. The third was whether, given the above, there was any prospect of fun.

The choice Tokyo made, for many reasons, will be studied, reappraised and perhaps regretted for years to come. A Japanese general election may hinge on it. What is already certain is that the decision rested on a wager that, for all the financial and political red ink that covers the Tokyo 2020 ledger, a splurge of black could be counted on from people like Irie.

The opening ceremony, which balanced the conflicting needs to dazzle, acknowledge the global crisis and conduct the performance safely, neatly illustrated these pressures. In the week before curtain-up, two key figures behind the ceremony were forced to resign over issues in their past, and a scoop by a local news magazine suggested that what we saw was a vastly toned-down (and cheaper) version of the show originally planned.

The highlight, though, was a segment in which a blue-suited actor with a large spherical head contorted their way, with the help of assistants and agile camera work, through high-speed renderings of the pictograms for all 33 sports at the Olympics in four minutes.

The pictogram performance at the Olympics opening ceremony © Swen Pförtner / Avalon

The subtlety here, somewhat lost amid the madcap energy, was that the refinement of pictograms as a universal language was one of Japan’s great gifts to the world when it hosted the Games in 1964. A few days after the show, the mastermind of the pictogram show — a comedian called Hiro-Pon — dropped by the FT’s office in Tokyo to explain the genesis of an act designed to democratise humour for a global audience of billions in just a few minutes.

“We decided to gamble on something analogue,” he said, explaining that his segment foreshadowed an Olympics where, in the forced absence of crowds and noise, the sporting emotion would in effect come across like a huge mime act.

Throughout these Games, the pleasure granted by my pass to mingle with the teams of some 200 nations, speak to athletes and watch sporting history has been heavily offset by a kind of survivor’s guilt. A lot of people seem to feel it, and the empty venues provide a little too much space for contemplation.

Chen Yuxi of China in action during the 10m platform diving final; she took the silver medal © Reuters/Molly Darlington

As the fortnight has progressed, officials and teams have become more numerous and vocal in their support. On the night that Stahl was hurling the discus into the torrid Tokyo skies, I bumped into the Swedish chef de mission among the Viking’s supporters in the huge National Stadium.

His team’s stylish kit is made by Japanese clothing group Uniqlo in a deal that leaned heavily on the Olympic history between the two countries. In 1912, Shizo Kanakuri was one of only two athletes representing Japan at the Stockholm Games, but got lost during the marathon, passed out and was nursed back to health by farmers.

Embarrassed, he stole back to Japan before being convinced some decades later to complete the run. His marathon time of 54 years, 246 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds stands as the slowest recorded time for the event but, according to the chef de mission, it was a perfect pre-deal icebreaker when Uniqlo and the Swedish team sat down to talk terms.

Even with coaches roaring their support, though, atmosphere has been hard to generate even if world records and other astonishing feats have rolled in with satisfying frequency.

As one skateboarder explained, the athletes at Tokyo 2020 have been asked both to perform with perfection and generate emotions that would normally be the job of a crowd. This, as so much else (good and bad) in the Ariake Urban Sports Park, was affirmed as “gnarly”.

Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica wins gold in the 100 metres, closely followed by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce © AP

I have guiltily attended events for which I had, in pre-Covid times, bought tickets for all the family. I could see, in empty arena after empty stadium, exactly where we would have sat together and enjoyed the spectacle. This has been much worse at the sports where Team GB or Japan have shone, which, awkwardly, has been in most of them.

People have decided that if the government deems it safe enough to hold these Games, it is giving an implicit nod to all gatherings

The family has watched at home, texting me the kind of thoughts that might, in darker moments, have passed through Michael Collins’s mind as he looked down from the Apollo 11 command module at Armstrong and Aldrin larking about on the Moon.

One of the sadder sights has been the use that Tokyo 2020 has made of its gorgeous pre-existing venues — several built for the 1964 Tokyo Games, whose cherished memory hangs forlornly over these. Irie’s boxing triumph took place in the Kokugikan sumo arena, and I have watched handball, table tennis and judo in, respectively, the vintage Yoyogi National Stadium, Metropolitan Gymnasium and Nippon Budokan.

In a city that lives by a code of obsessive renewal and assumed obsolescence, these exude a rare permanence that Covid has denied hundreds of thousands the chance to soak in for themselves.

Irie’s parting shot to the press conference was that, as a reward for her gold, she would like her parents to take her for really good beef tongue yakiniku. Few deserve it more than her, but she had best be quick. While the efforts to encase the Games in a bubble appear to have prevented the kind of infection spikes many feared, the moral hazard of holding the Games at all has done its worst among Tokyo’s general population.

Record daily infections have been a grim feature of these past two weeks, and the cause seems clear: people have decided that if the government deems it safe enough to hold these Games, it is giving an implicit nod to all gatherings.

The government will probably play along until just after the closing ceremony, at which point Irie’s favourite yakiniku restaurant may well find itself threatened with a fine, even if it is serving the nation’s greatest boxer.

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Asia business editor

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