So I adore the Olympics. No other sporting event comes close. As a consequence, I hold in commensurate contempt those who try to steal it from me. Because every cycle there are people who attempt to ensure that this astonishing occasion – an awe-inspiring celebration of human achievement – cannot go ahead.
The anti-Olympians are typically an alliance of disaffected locals and silly season-starved strands of the international media. For the press, the pre-Games crisis has now become a nailed-on bulletin fixture. You can set your watch to the arrival of Olympic paranoia.
In 2004, the Greeks hadn’t built any facilities, and in Beijing everyone was going to suffocate in the smog. In the wake of the financial crash, there was going to be no money for London 2012, and in Rio, if Zika didn’t get you, then the sewage in the waterways would.
But none of these ill-tidings came true. The Athenian facilities were perfectly adequate and smog did not affect the athletes in Beijing. An overwhelming majority of Brits judged London 2012 to be well worth the cost. As for the Zika virus, not a single foreign visitor to Rio reported contracting the disease, while the rowing lakes and sailing lagoons were refreshingly clear of effluvia.
(It may be that I’m ranting against nothing more than a useful journalistic tic. If a Games is talked down and undercut, then it makes the eventual triumph all the more exciting. By lowering expectations, the media create their own story of ‘fantastic Olympics against the odds’. This is more or less how column inches get filled. The gloomy story doesn’t have to exist, it just has to seem like it does. So that glorious sporting majesty can spring unexpectedly from the ashes of Olympic doom-mongering. Compelling stuff.)
Anyway, the pre-Games pessimists have tried it again in Tokyo. This time round, they have a nihilistic ace to play. The virus which has already delayed the Games by a year is still at large. Thanks to the incompetence of the Japanese government, the proportion of the population who are fully vaccinated sits at 32.2%. A little below Turkey and just above Cambodia. Prior to the start of competition in late July, the local NIMBYs almost achieved their aim of cancelling the Tokyo Games completely. They asserted that the arrival of foreign athletes would inevitably lead to a rise in infections.
But the Games went ahead. By day 5 – Wednesday the 28th of July – Japan was topping the medal table with 13 golds, with the USA and China trailing. Japan won just 12 gold medals in Rio. The host nation had overtopped that benchmark with most of the Games still to go!
Had they succeeded, the Japanese anti-Olympic activists would have denied their country unprecedented sporting success, plus mountains of positive media attention. Every evening British viewers can tune in to Clare Balding on BBC One to watch Today at the Games and enjoy spectacular views of the Tokyo cityscape and endless Mount Fuji iconography. What sane person would want to deny their country that free advertising? I hope – given the success of their national team – that the Japanese kill-joys are beginning to regret their cancellation campaign.
Like the Olympic crises before it, the predicted coronavirus disaster is also failing to materialise. It’s true that cases have been rising since early July, but deaths have remained reassuringly low. An average of less than 20 per day for the past two weeks. And in a country with a population 53% larger than the UK’s.
Yes of course these Games are a bit stilted and muffled. The lack of crowds makes for awful, echoey silences, with the only applause coming from fellow athletes and coaches in the stands. The medal winners have to conduct interviews in masks – straining to hear a journalist’s muted question through a scrap of cloth when they should be enjoying their success.
Still, as soon as the first events got underway, I could sense the sombre mood begin to lift. It always does. Because the central misapprehension of all Olympic doom-mongers is that the success of the Games hinges on facilities, or money, or the environment or even a pandemic. In fact, the success of a Games has relatively little to do with a host city, or its organisers.
It has everything to do with the athletes. They have spent four years – in this case five – preparing for the event. They never disappoint. And that is why every Games in recent memory has been a triumph. For the Olympics to succeed, and for the doubters to be proved wrong, all that needs to happen is for the athletes to compete. To take to the field, lake, course, track, road, range and pool. Then we are reminded of what the Olympics are for. Of why we hold them in the first place: so that we can applaud and be inspired by astonishing athletic feats. Tokyo has been no different.
When each set of financial ‘realists’ and pandemic paranoids raise their voice prior to a Games they fail to conduct a fair test. Until the Olympics take place, they cannot comprehend how it could possibly be worth the hassle. But then it starts. And we see athletes from disparate and rival nations united in sportsmanship. We witness records fall and dreams realised. And we cheer our favourites through the telly. Then we remember why this wonderful event is held. Why it is always worth it.
Illustration by Oliver Buckingham