As it is now, so it has always been. Eighteen months after the first modern Olympic Games, at Athens in 1896, the entire organising committee resigned en masse because they thought the job was impossible. The country was, in the phrase of the prime minister, Charilaos Trikoupis, “regretfully bankrupt”. He told the fledgling International Olympic Committee that the economic situation meant there was no way the Games could go ahead. The IOC’s founder, Pierre de Coubertin, heard but didn’t listen. Instead he got to work, wheedling, cajoling, politicking, pushing ahead regardless.
“To those who followed closely the preliminaries, it appeared certain that the Games would be a disastrous failure,” wrote the British competitor George Robertson, who took part in the discus. “This was not the case.” Coubertin won the support, and financial backing, of the Greek royal family. And Trikoupis lost a general election in 1895, to a rival who had publicly backed the Games.
So, the Games were born out of uncertainty, delivered by an obdurate and implacable IOC, despite public doubts, political concerns, and escalating costs. The IOC’s stubborn self-certainty has seen the Olympics through the last 125 years, across two world wars, three cancelled Games, through the Tlatelolco massacre at Mexico 1968, when the government killed over 200 Olympics protesters; the Munich massacre in 1972, when the Black September organisation took nine members of the Israeli team hostage; through the $2bn debt left by Montreal 1976, the reciprocal cold war boycotts of Moscow 1980 and LA 1984, the doping scandals of Seoul 1988 and London 2012, the bombing of Atlanta 1996, the corruption, waste and grift of Rio 2016.
Right the way up to these Tokyo Games. The IOC has tried to compare them to the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, which were held at the tail end of the Spanish flu pandemic. But nothing in living memory has been anything like this. They’re throwing a party in the middle of a global pandemic, have 100,000 guests, 11,000 athletes, and 79,000 officials, support staff and journalists, from more than 200 countries, flying into a city stuck in a state of emergency, in a country where only 22% of the population are fully vaccinated, a country which simply isn’t ready for these Games.
It is happening despite the objections of Japan’s frontline medical workers, who have had to divert vital resources for it, the objections of Japan’s doctors’ union, who have raised concerns about a new ‘Olympic strain’ of the virus, and the objections of leading newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun, which came out against the Games in a recent editorial. And it is happening despite the wishes of the Japanese public.
A wide range of polls over a long stretch of time have shown a majority of people in Japan think the Games ought to be cancelled or postponed, and that it is impossible to hold them safely. The current IOC president, Thomas Bach, is implacable.
“You cannot take a decision regarding an Olympic Games, which is being followed by billions of people worldwide, which is being longed for by athletes around the globe, by having a poll,” Bach said. Presumably you decide it by IOC decree, instead.
In private, and in public, Bach has been reassuring IOC members that, despite the winds of opinion, the Games has a long list of corporate sponsors signed up to support it. “If they did not have confidence in our management of the Games and the Olympic movement, they would never make these long-term agreements.”
That was before one of those major sponsors, Toyota, announced it was pulling its Games-related advertisements off TV. Executives from two more sponsors, Panasonic and Procter & Gamble, have also confirmed that, like Toyota, they would not be attending the opening ceremony.
Here in Tokyo, there is a palpable sense the city is holding its breath, waiting to see how the Games plays out. There have already been 87 Covid cases among the Olympic visitors, and the number is rising each day. Despite the rigorous testing, quarantine and social distancing protocols, experts have already said that the Olympic bubble is “broken”.
Bach, like Coubertin, presses on, in the belief it will be all right in the end. The cycles of public opinion in cities that host the Olympics are as predictable as the tides. Academic researchers have mapped out a pattern that starts with a sense of pride at being selected, is followed by opposition and apathy, and ends with happiness and euphoria.
That was what happened in 1896. Those Games didn’t just succeed, they succeeded, Robertson wrote, even beyond Coubertin’s expectations. They turned on one spectacular performance. Spyridon Louis, a Greek water carrier, won the very first marathon, run from the ancient battlefield along the coast to the Panathenaic Stadium, where a crowd of 80,000 waited for him and the messengers on horseback who went ahead to bring updates on the race.
When Louis entered the stadium, “the excitement and enthusiasm were simply indescribable”, wrote Coubertin. It was “one of the most extraordinary sights I can remember”. The victory didn’t just make Louis, it made the Games.
Now, again, the IOC finds itself relying on the athletes to save the Games, to sweep the world up in the grace and power and speed and strength and beauty and thrill of Olympic competition. Because it is still the biggest and best spectacle in all of sport.
Never mind the budget overruns, the bribery and corruption and grift, the waste, the way they sweep the homeless off the streets before it begins, the fact they’re making their volunteers work 13-hour days and telling them to hold off having a second dose of the vaccine because they don’t want them to miss shifts. Forget all the dirty work of building the stage, here is the show.
That’s the gamble the IOC always makes, and it has always paid off. But this time, it has more on it than ever before. For the last year, the athletes have been the IOC’s one good reason why these Games have to go ahead (it has a few hundreds of millions more, most of them provided by US TV networks, but it has been less keen to discuss them in public).
“They will enter the Olympic stadium on the 23rd of July with full pride and sending an important message to the entire world,” Bach said. “A message of resilience, of Olympic passion, of Olympic values like solidarity and peace.”
Only there won’t be any cheering crowds, no 80,000 in the stadium. The IOC hopes it will play well on TV anyway, that something beautiful and inspiring will emerge from this, that we will see performances in the next fortnight that say more about the magic of the Olympics than Bach’s platitudes ever could.
You still have to ask whether it will be worth it. Normally they reckon the cost of the Olympics in money; this one may also be judged on how many deaths it leads to. Normally, we talk about the sacrifices the athletes have made to compete at the Games – this time, we may talk about the sacrifices the country made to allow them to do it.