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Tokyo Olympics closes with many questions for IOC

Oliver Moody Tokyo
August 8, 2021

Though COVID-19 and public outrage loomed large, Tokyo 2020 still possessed the Olympic magic we all know and love. But the IOC won't always be able to hide behind the athletes' brilliance, writes DW's Oliver Moody.

Tokyo's Olympic Stadium during the women's 5,000 meters
Image: Martin Rickett/empics/picture alliance

"So what are you actually going to do in Tokyo?" It was a fair question.

The buildup to this year's Olympic Games was filled with uncertainty, and it was no different for journalists like me traveling to Japan. Would we be able to move around the city? To talk to people? Would we even be able to get into the events themselves?

Before we even got that far, there was a series of Tokyo 2020 systems and apps to navigate, about half of which actually seemed to work. The fear of getting turned back at the airport over an unchecked box felt terrifyingly real in the weeks before departure.

So when my doctor asked the question as he was giving me my COVID-19 vaccine, I didn't know what to say. On top of the pragmatic issues, some even more basic dilemmas had been swirling around my head. Should I even be going to Tokyo when the locals will be shut out? Should the Games be taking place at all?

Most of the restrictions were overcome — some relatively easily, others with a fair degree of difficulty and a scarcely believable quantity of deodorant. But it is perhaps unsatisfying to say that I still don't have a firm answer to those last questions.

The role COVID-19 played during the Olympics

Coronavirus case numbers exploded here during the Games, reaching record levels in Tokyo since the Olympics got underway. But the relatively low number of cases among people involved in the Olympics, and the fact that cases started rising rapidly before most of us had arrived in Tokyo, suggests that has more to do with the delta variant than the influx of foreigners.

Empty stands serve as a backdrop to IOC President Thomas Bach at the Opening Ceremonies
Empty stands serve as a backdrop to IOC President Thomas Bach at the Opening CeremoniesImage: Petr David Josek/AP/picture alliance

The ban on spectators is a travesty that truly eats away at the soul of the Games, and laying eyes on the empty fan park still standing next to Tokyo Bay is a brutal reminder of that. But, in this case, disappointing hundreds of thousands of locals with tickets meant giving joy to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.

Athletes who trained their whole lives for this moment but then tested positive for COVID have been locked up heartlessly. Others have been able to fulfill their dreams, some with their very last chance at Olympic glory. Seeing intense euphoria and acute physical pain simultaneously etched into the faces of American swimmer Caeleb Dressel, British BMX cyclist Bethany Shriever and Ugandan steeplechase runner Peruth Chemutai in the flesh and knowing that thousands of hours of grinding away just paid off for them perhaps changes one's perspective.

The Japanese people themselves are also conflicted on the issue of the Games. At the opening ceremony, I could hear the demonstrators outside railing against the organizers who showed them so little respect. I've walked through protests to get into the Olympic Stadium in the last few days, and seen banners with slogans like, "Stop playing Games! Save lives, not the Olympics!" while others tell IOC President Thomas Bach, in no uncertain terms, to get out of Japan.

This shows unmistakably that the anger has not subsided. But I've also seen people lining up for photos with the rings, not 50 meters away from the protests. I've seen crowds form on a bridge as people tried to get a good view of the BMX events. I've seen people wearing Team Japan replica shirts all over town. They are all still part of the spectacle, even if they're not allowed to spectate.

Just before the start of the Games, I spoke to a pair of tour guides, who gave me almost identical quotes. "The Olympics should have been canceled because of the pandemic," they agreed. "Now that it's happening, though, I'll probably watch some of it."

If any of this sounds inconsistent, even hypocritical, ask yourself what any normal person is supposed to do in these circumstances.

Questions asked of IOC, Japanese government

What is clear is that none of these things have been treated with the gravity they deserve by the powers that be. The IOC makes grand claims of bringing the world together and giving athletes their big moments, but the truth of the matter is that hosting the Tokyo Olympics in spite of everything is an act of protecting revenues. The vast majority of the IOC's income stems from broadcast and sponsorship deals associated with the Summer and Winter Games. That's why we're all here.

The Japanese government meanwhile, staring down the barrel of billions in wasted investment and further bills to come in the event of cancellation, instead followed the gambling addict's logic that eventually their luck just had to change. To an extent, it has.

As increasingly seems to be the case with the Olympics, the unpalatable realities behind the scenes are countered by the brilliance of the performances and the compelling stories of previously unknown athletes who shoot to stardom over 16 breathless days. For a couple of weeks, we can intermittently forget how inherently wrong the direction the Olympic movement is heading in feels these days. No doubt the host nation's record-shattering performance in the medal table has helped the locals focus on the positives.

IOC President Thomas Bach during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics
IOC President Thomas Bach during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo OlympicsImage: Hannah McKay/Getty Images

But the gap between perceptions of athletes and authorities grows ever larger. That was made abundantly clear by the IOC's lumbering, reluctant response to the case of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was kicked off Belarus' Olympic team for refusing to compete in the 4x400-meter relay.

And already they're having to bat away questions about Winter Olympics in Beijing, which start in just six months. They have already been dubbed "The Genocide Games" due to the Chinese government's treatment of its Uyghur population. Tokyo can almost breathe a sigh of relief, but scrutiny of the IOC is likely to ramp up even further in the coming months.

If one moment sums up the Tokyo Olympics, it was a scene immediately after the women's park skateboarding final. We had just witnessed an astonishing performance from a group of mostly teenaged athletes who, on top of their phenomenal skills, displayed compassion, togetherness and a joie de vivre that is often lacking in the seriously competitive forum of the Games. They were supremely talented, genuine, and fun.

And right there at the bottom of the press tribune, posing for photos and basking in their reflected glory, was Thomas Bach. The man who externally speaks almost exclusively in platitudes but internally demands fierce loyalty from his IOC subjects; the man currently leading the organization's drive for more profits and less humanity. These are the two sides of the Olympic coin.