The world’s Olympian moment

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In July 2011, Japan announced its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. Ten years later, the sporting events should have been a proud memory for the city of Tokyo; instead, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the plans, and the city will host a shrunken version of the Games.

Country delegations have been reduced to essential representatives and the number of volunteers was kept to a bare minimum. Athletes are required to test daily for the virus, and many will leave the Olympic village within 48 hours of the end of their competitions. The traditional street parties have long been taken off the programme. Spectators from overseas are barred and thousands of domestic ticketholders are also expected to stay away from the stadia. 

The usual Olympic torch relay turned a bit into an obstacle race as one city after another shut down and congregations of any sort were forbidden. But the bumpy journey of the flame mirrored the travails of the organisation team. Soon after launching the official logo of the Games, in 2015, the design was called out for plagiarism. The committee pushed back against the accusations but eventually set out a fresh call for proposals with a two-week deadline. 

The organising committee faced harsher criticism when its head, Yoshiro Mori, was denounced for making inappropriate remarks about women. The former Prime Minister apologised publicly but resisted calls to step down. Pressure continued to pile as protests grew louder and main sponsor Toyota threatened to pull out. The octogenarian finally offered his resignation. 

Despite the difficult context, there is much anticipation for the Games. The festival of sports includes 339 events spread across 50 disciplines. Baseball and softball are making a comeback while surfing, skateboarding, climbing, and karate will make their debut on the Olympic stage. 

Calls for the cancellation of this edition were mounting at par with the global Covid-19 cases, but proponents argued that the Games are needed more than ever amid the devastation of the pandemic. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga raised the topic on the agenda of the latest G7 meeting, extracting a commitment from the other members of the club to participate in the events. 

Worries about the health risks will likely still produce further headlines in the 200 countries that are sending contingents, particularly as alarm grows over the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus. But the excellence of athletes, the emotion of the competitions, and the unifying character of sport may bring the hope and optimism that the world desperately needs right now.

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