With over 84% of Japan still waiting for their first jab, why are the Olympic Games being held there?
Is the sporting world, and compliant politicians, playing fast and loose with the pandemic? The European football tournament across 11 countries, the Copa América in Brazil, the fast-approaching Tokyo Olympics, might all be seen as brave defiance of Covid curfews – or an irresponsible gamble with potentially damning repercussions.
Questioning the right to play might be considered cowardly, or killjoy. Better that than killing.
Wales fans who went to Baku or to Rome and who are going to Amsterdam are celebrating the right to support their team. And though Scotland’s first minister closed her borders to visitors from parts of England, the Tartan Army travelled down to London where they drank in the Shakespeare fountain in Leicester Square despite being denied tickets to cheer on their lads having the better of a goalless draw against the auld enemy at Wembley Stadium.
In a free society, the more anyone tries to restrict this expression of nationalism, the greater the compulsion to defy it.
The same game, a world away, is even more dangerously being played in Brazil. Its president Joao Bolsonaro is a denier in the Donald Trump mould of all things Covid. Its death toll has just passed 500,000. Yet when Colombia and Argentina abandoned the rights to host the Copa América just weeks before it was due to commence, Brazil picked them up, and the responsibility to stage the 10-nation tournament in five stadiums.
There, in what are effectively ghost stadiums with no spectators but the obligatory TV audience, Neymar is scoring his goals and Messi is strutting his skills. Bolsonaro believes this will garner votes towards his re-election next year even as the beaches of Rio and the streets of São Paulo fill with protestors trying to oust him from office.
Football remains a life force, even in times so life-threatening.
Yet there is a bigger, and an even older sporting tradition, the Olympic Games. Tokyo was supposed to have staged the Games of the XXXII Olympiad last year but, like the football and like theatre and music and dance, all was postponed in the initial outbreak of Covid-19.
The Japanese population do not want these Games, or this plague, any more than they would want a second Hiroshima. Polls have shown, and keep on showing, that upwards of 75 per cent of the people simply fear that this is no time to play or to open their country up to the 11,000 athletes from all over the world at a time when vaccination inside Japan has barely begun to build immunity.
On last reports, just under 16 per cent of Japan’s population have had the first inoculation; six per cent are fully vaccinated.
Foreign tourists, including the entourage that athletes may rely upon, are not allowed entry. The authorities decided as late as this Monday to go against scientific advice and allow 20,000 people to attend the opening ceremony on July 23 – and half that number of audience in the stadium for events. These 10,000 spectators, Japanese only, will be ordered not to shout, to speak only softly, in short to let neither emotions or breathe out into the air.
The advice to athletes is ‘come if you dare’. Sign a disclaimer that amounts to a paper absolving the host country of responsibility for your death if you contract coronavirus in the Athletes’ Village. Follow the app to assess when it is safe – or safer – to eat in the official canteen, or to train, work out or simply breath alongside your fellow Olympians.
In short, the very essence of taking part, of striving, of sharing the Olympic spirit, is advised against. Even the distribution of 160,000 condoms, a now-customary Olympic precaution, comes with a health warning not to actually use them.
Sorry, but these are not the Olympics as we know them. Yes, young men and women have committed their lives (or at least five years of their peak athletic years) towards 2020 (now 2021). Yes, every living, breathing, striving moment is dedicated to this opportunity. And yes, it may never come again or at least not to the same level of expertise and exhibition as now.
In that sense, the athletes are already victims whether or not they carry or contract this dammed disease. Already one Ugandan athlete tested positive on arrival at Tokyo’s Narita Airport and he or she (unnamed) is now in quarantine though this early test possibly allows time to train in isolation and take part when the time comes.
I understand the competitive instinct. The Olympics are, for most athletes and hundreds of millions of spectators, the pinnacle of sporting ambition. We know that state doping exists, and not just by Russia. We see how commercialism and political machination has seeped so deeply into the IOC that the flame is not remotely recognisable for what it was.
But no-one has created, or is likely to, a viable alternative. The IOC, like FIFA the world governors of football, is contaminated from the head down by greed and deception. It took FBI agents to bring some FIFA bigwigs to court, yet it was Americans from Salt Lake City who were caught offering bribes to host the Winter Games two decades ago. And Americans like the seemingly wonderful Marion Jones who accused others while injecting herself with steroids before the 2,000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
The hypocrisy is bigger than the crime. Sporting achievement draws us because in everything from the football field to the Olympic arena we are fascinated, jealous, admiring of men and women, boys and girls who develop a skill most of us can only dream we could have.
The vortex of it all is that we literally pay through TV subscriptions, through product prices, most of all through human expression, to watch competitors pushed to their limits. Even when we know, or we suspect, those limits are artificially enhanced.
We know that politicians (or worse, so-called sports politicians) are exploiting this compulsion of ours to see the best in the best moments of their lives. We accept that there is a commercial swamp around the sports and that only the few are blessed with a constitution and a moral courage to ignore the temptation to cheat.
The irony is that this year we are housebound, tuned in, and giving our emotions to sporting events that are as close as we can get to watching others live life to the full. Unlike the spectators in the Olympic arena, we can at least shout at the box.
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