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Japan Braces For A Surreal Olympics

TOKYO (AP) – After a long year of delay and months of arm-twisting in a pandemic-ridden world, summer games like no other are on the way. This is, of course, the Olympics, but, in essence, something completely different.

No foreign fans. No local attendance at event venues in the Tokyo area. The negative population is suffering a spike in cases of the virus amid a still limited vaccination campaign. Athletes and those accompanying them are imprisoned in a quasi-bubble under the threat of deportation. Government officials and monitoring apps are trying – in theory at least – to track every movement of visitors. Alcohol reduced or prohibited. The cultural exchanges that fuel the living energy of most games are completely absent.

And how electric current flows through it all: the inescapable knowledge of suffering and the sense of displacement that has caused COVID-19 both here and around the world.

All signs point to the utterly surreal and fragmented Games that will split Japan into two worlds during the month of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

A cameraman sits next to empty spectator seats during the test track and field event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in the National Federation.

AP Photo / Shuji Kajiyama

A television cameraman sits next to empty spectator seats during the test track and field event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, May 9, 2021.

On the one hand, much of Japan’s largely unvaccinated, increasingly outraged population will continue to fight the worst pandemic to hit the globe in a century, almost completely separating from the spectacular Tokyo Games except for what they see on TV. Sickness and recovery, work and rest, limited by strict viral restrictions: here life will continue as it is.

Meanwhile, in huge (and extremely expensive) indoor stadiums, vaccinated super-athletes and legions of reporters, IOC officials, volunteers and Games organizers will do whatever they can to focus on a sport that is delighted. and a remote multi-billion dollar audience.

Since the pandemic canceled the originally planned version in 2020, the Japanese media has been obsessed with the Games. Will they really happen? If so, what will they look like? And the endlessly exciting – and indeed shocking to many here – the prospect of hosting the Olympics during what may seem like a delayed national catastrophe, has infiltrated society almost as thoroughly as a virus.

“The thought that the Olympics can be pushed through by force and that everyone should obey orders has led to this confusion,” Asahi said in a recent editorial. The IOC and Japanese officials “must understand that their absurdity has heightened public distrust of the Olympics.”

It is, of course, too early to predict exactly what will happen when these cross-currents converge during the Games, as some 15,000 athletes and, according to some estimates, almost 70,000 officials, media and other participants are drawn into the flow of Tokyo life. in isolated and limited but ubiquitous ways.

Will the normally hospitable Japanese be warm to visitors, or will they become increasingly angry as they watch fully vaccinated guests enjoy freedoms they haven’t experienced since the beginning of 2020? Will Olympians and other players play by the rules designed to protect the country they visit? Will they bring options that will spread across Japan? Will the fight against coronavirus be difficult?

One thing seems certain: these games will have much less than what the world expected from the Olympic Games, with their appealing blend of human competition at the highest level of celebration and cultural exchanges based on recommendations from fans, athletes and locals.

Typically, the Olympics are a flashy time – a two-week party for a host city looking to show the world its delights. They are teeming with tourists and all the entertainment that exotic places and interesting visitors can bring. This is a workaround. however, it will be strictly scheduled for television, and the skeptical people of Japan are largely isolated as another state of emergency places more restrictions on their daily lives.

In this archived photo, dated 1 July 2021, Olympic officials direct the Irish athletes upon arrival at Narita International Airport.

Kyodo News via AP

In this archived photo, dated 1 July 2021, Olympic officials direct the Irish athletes upon arrival at Narita International Airport in Narita, east of Tokyo.

The story that foreign visitors focus on these games will also be very different from reality on the streets of the country.

With the exception of the disaster, the IOC, local newspapers (many of which are also sponsors), Japanese television, and copyright holders such as NBC are likely to be united in their message: simply going through with it will count as a triumph.

However, not many visiting journalists will linger in intensive care units or seek interviews with angry residents who believe the Games were left to the nation for the IOC to raise its billions in television money.

There will likely be plenty of televised images from a touristy version of Japan, which blends footage of ancient history, tradition, and natural beauty with high-tech futuristic sensibility: think of a sleek, silvery bullet train like it zipping past the snow-capped Mount Fuji. In other words, a reality riddled with easily digestible cliches and predictable setups.

As Tokyo grapples with the weirdness of this pandemic Olympics in the coming weeks, it will be difficult for many here to miss the gap between sport and disease, rhetoric and reality, visitor and local.

However, how reluctant Japan will weather the high-risk experiment that could define a future coronavirus pandemic should wait until visitors pack up and head home. Only then will it become clear the true price that the host country must pay for these surreal games.

Foster Klug, AP News Director for Japan, Korea, Australia and the South Pacific, has covered Asia since 2005 and is based in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter at

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