After a year-long delay and months of hand-wringing that rippled across a COVID-19 pandemic-inflected world, a Summer Games unlike any other is at hand. It’s an Olympics, sure, but also, in a very real way, something quite different.
No foreign fans. No local attendance in Tokyo-area venues. A reluctant populace navigating a surge of virus cases amid a still-limited vaccination campaign. Athletes and their entourages confined to a quasi-bubble, under threat of deportation.
Government minders and monitoring apps trying — in theory, at least — to track visitors’ every move. Alcohol curtailed or banned. Cultural exchanges, the kind that power the on-the-ground energy of most Games, completely absent.
And running like an electric current through it all: The inescapable knowledge of the suffering and sense of displacement that COVID-19 has ushered in, both here and around the world.
All signs point to an utterly surreal and atomised Games, one that will divide Japan into two worlds during the month of Olympics and Paralympics competition.
On one side, most of Japan’s largely unvaccinated, increasingly resentful populace will continue soldiering on through the worst pandemic to hit the globe in a century, almost entirely separated from the spectacle of the Tokyo Games aside from what they see on TV. Illness and recovery, work and play, both curtailed by strict virus restrictions: Life, such as it is, will go on here.
Meanwhile, in massive (and massively expensive) locked-down stadiums, vaccinated super-athletes, and the legions of reporters, IOC officials, volunteers and handlers that make the Games go, will do their best to concentrate on sports served up to a rapt and remote audience of billions.