TOKYO (AP) — After a year-long delay and months of hand-wringing that reverberated across a pandemic-infested world, a Summer Games unlike any other is on the horizon: it's an Olympics, yes, but it's also, in a very real sense, something quite different.
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
attempting — in theory, at least — to track visitors’ every move. Alcohol curtailed or banned.
And, running through it all like an electric current, the unavoidable knowledge of the suffering and sense of displacement that COVID-19
has brought about, both here and around the world.
All indications point to a bizarre and atomized Games that will divide Japan
into two worlds during the month of Olympic and Paralympic competition.
On the one hand, the majority of Japan's largely unvaccinated, increasingly resentful population will soldier on through the worst pandemic to hit the world 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, 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 who keep the Games running will do their best to focus on sports
served up to a rapt and remote audience of billions.
Since the pandemic canceled the original 2020 version, the Japanese media
has been obsessed with the Games: Will they happen? If so, what will they look like? And the endlessly fascinating — shocking, really, to many here — prospect of staging an Olympics during what can appear to be a slow-motion national disaster has permeated society nearly as thoroughly as the virus.
“The mindset that the Olympics
can be forced through and that everyone should obey the order has invited this mess,” the Asahi newspaper wrote in a recent editorial, adding that the IOC and Japanese officials “should learn that their absurdity has deepened public distrust in the Olympics.”
Of course, it is too early to predict what will happen when these cross-currents collide during the Games, when approximately 15,000 athletes and, according to some estimates, nearly 70,000 officials, media, and other participants insert themselves into the flow of Tokyo life in sequestered and limited, yet ubiquitous, ways.
Will the normally hospitable Japanese people
warm to the visitors or become increasingly enraged as they watch
fully vaccinated visitors enjoy freedoms they haven't experienced since early 2020? Will Olympians
and others follow the rules designed to protect the country they're visiting? Will they bring in variants that will spread throughout Japan?
One thing is certain: these games will contain far less of what the world has come to expect from the Olympics, with its appealing mix of high-level human competition interspersed with celebrations and cultural exchanges by fans
, athletes, and locals on the sidelines.
Normally, the Olympics are a vibrant time
— a two-week party for a host city eager to show the world its charms, teeming with tourists and all the fun that an exotic locale and interesting visitors can bring. This time, however, will be strictly choreographed for television
, with the skeptical people of Japan largely isolated as yet another state of emergency places more constraints on their daily lives.
The story that foreign visitors will focus on for these Games will be very different from the reality on the streets of the country.
Barring disaster, the IOC, local newspapers (many of which are also sponsors), Japanese TV, and rights holders such as NBC
will likely be united
in their message: simply making it through will be viewed as a victory.
However, few visiting journalists
will linger in intensive care units or pursue interviews with angry residents who believe the Games were foisted on the country in order for the IOC to collect billions in television revenue.
More likely, there will be plenty of made-for-TV images of a tour-book Japan, one that combines shots of ancient history
, tradition, and natural beauty with a high-tech, futuristic sensibility: imagine a sleek, silver bullet train streaking past a snow-capped Mount Fuji. A reality riddled with easy-to-digest cliches and predictable establishing shots.
As Tokyo grapples with the inherent strangeness of these pandemic Olympics in the coming weeks, the disconnect between sports and sickness, rhetoric and reality, visitor and local will be difficult to miss for many here.
However, how a hesitant Japan will handle a high-risk experiment that could come to define the coronavirus pandemic
in future years will have to wait until the visitors pack up and leave, as only then will the true cost that the host nation must pay for these Surreal Games become clear.
Foster Klug, the Associated Press
's news director for Japan, Korea, Australia
, and the South Pacific, has been covering Asia since 2005 and is based in Tokyo. You can follow him on Twitter