News analysis

Tokyo 2020: Hits and misses in an Olympic triumph against adversity

Fireworks released above the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Games on Aug 8, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS
Fireworks released above the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Games on Aug 8, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - The cauldron was snuffed out on Sunday (Aug 8) as the curtains fell on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which will go down in history as a triumph against adversity despite being one of the most surreal sporting spectacles yet.

True to the name of the Tokyo 2020 slogan, "United By Emotion", there has been plenty of emotion in the inspirational sporting triumphs, displays of grit, tender moments of friendship, and discussions of mental health.

Yet, the fervour is subdued in host city Tokyo, which is celebrating Team Japan athletes amid the country's best Olympic showing yet. But Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing and there is some resentment over the at-all-costs pursuit of the Games.

This complicates Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's hopes that the "feel-good" effect can translate into a positive impact on his political support. And, as the bill for the Games has surged to at least 1.64 trillion yen (S$20.1 billion), he will have his work cut out convincing taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Here is The Straits Times' unofficial verdict on the Games.

Effort: A

The organisers deserve all the plaudits for pushing ahead with the Games, which are arguably the largest global event since Covid-19 began, as about 60,000 athletes, officials and journalists converged on Tokyo.

Journalists at the media press centre for the Tokyo 2020 Games, on July 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

This came despite stiff public opposition amid Covid-19 fears, which the organisers sought to allay by holding the Games within a "bubble". To be sure, there were teething problems and a slew of frustrations such as bureaucracy in the complicated paperwork involved.

But the earnestness and omotenashi hospitality of the tens of thousands of volunteers, as well as the perseverance of the organisers, cannot be faulted.

Green measures: A

Sustainability was the heart and soul of the Tokyo 2020 mandate as organisers sought to slash the carbon footprint associated with the Games.

Medals were made from donated mobile phones and electronics; podiums from recycled plastics.

The new National Stadium, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, was built using wood canvassed from all 47 of Japan's prefectures, as was the Olympic Village Plaza. Mr Kuma told The Straits Times that he sought to offset negative emissions through the extensive use of wood and natural ventilation.

The 5,300 sq m Plaza at the Olympic Village is made of about 40,000 pieces of timber donated by 63 municipalities in Japan. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Elsewhere, hydrogen was used to fuel Games relay torches and the Olympic cauldron, while 90 per cent of the Games passenger vehicles are electric-drive such as fuel cell or plug-in hybrid models.

Even the beds in the Games Village can be recycled: The mattresses can be broken down into pellets and processed into bedding or plastic bags, while the bed frames are made of recyclable cardboard.

Covid-19 measures: B+

The Games have been touted as being held in a "different parallel world", with the bubble returning only a positive rate of 0.02 per cent from the 571,000 tests conducted as at Friday (Aug 6).

Yet, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Mr Suga alike have concluded that the Games have nothing to do with skyrocketing Covid-19 cases domestically, medical experts warn that the event has blunted the sense of urgency among the public.

Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing in host city Tokyo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Even with a ban on spectators at the Games, fringe events such as the public display of the Olympic cauldron and an ongoing Olympic Agora cultural exhibition are being held.

These have arguably given cause to the public to make "once-in-a-lifetime" visits to these sites despite government advisories to avoid "non-essential outings".

These mixed signals aside, there are also weak links within the bubble.

Visitors routinely come into contact with volunteers, food servers or drivers, many of whom are unvaccinated and could pose as a conduit of the virus from outside the bubble.

And there are concerns that the bubble has broken down: Athletes and delegations have been seen venturing to tourist areas such as Akihabara, Ginza or Shibuya for a bout of sightseeing and shopping.

The true test of the bubble's efficacy may come only after the visitors return home, especially if they wind up testing positive.

Heat response: B

Canadian decathlon champion Damian Warner pours water on his head after the men's 1500m event on Aug 5, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

When it was decided last year that the Tokyo Games would be delayed, hopes arose that scientific wisdom would trump commercial broadcast interests.

Despite arguments for the Games to be shifted to the balmy spring months, the Games went on in July and - as warned - were blighted by scorching heat, sweltering humidity and two tropical storms.

Organisers sought to beat the heat - to little effect - with cooling vests, mist sprays, ice packs and popsicles, while also laying solar heat-reflecting pavements.

But Tokyo 2020 may be remembered for the series of athletes who collapsed or were wheelchaired off from heat-related illnesses.

Tennis World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev gave perhaps the quote of the Games when he asked: "I can finish the match but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?"

It was only after this chorus of complaints that the IOC took action, shifting tennis matches from 11am to 3pm. Several other events, including the women's marathon and women's football final, also had their starting times changed.

This flexibility is commendable, but should not distract from how such issues could have been prevented, to begin with.

Diversity: B

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard competes in the women's +87kg group A gold medal event on Aug 2, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Tokyo 2020 were billed as the "Diversity Games", giving stage to a transgender weightlifter and a non-binary skateboarder.

Activists have lauded the Tokyo Games for having a record number of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) athletes taking part.

These are also the first Games to nearly reach parity in the number of male and female athletes.

Team Japan also made a strong statement by having two haafu (mixed-race Japanese) take centre stage at the opening ceremony.

Basketballer Rui Hachimura, the son of a Beninese father and Japanese mother, was flag-bearer of Japan's 582-strong contingent, while tennis player Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, lit the Olympic cauldron.

Still, the diversity push met a setback in February when Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori made discriminating remarks against women, leading to his resignation under global pressure.

The government also fell short when it jettisoned before the Games a law it had promised, to "promote understanding" and "deem discrimination against LGBT individuals unacceptable".

Fukushima recovery: B-

Lisianthus flowers grown in a greenhouse in Fukushima will be used for victory bouquets at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. PHOTO: AFP

Japan labelled the event the "Recovery Games" in its initial bid, touting that it will be the best chance to showcase the recovery of the north-east Japan region that was devastated from the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

But this focus appears to have been relegated to a symbolic sideshow to the "light at the end of the pandemic tunnel" message - a point that has not gone down well with Fukushima locals.

It was notable that the Olympic torch relay began on March 25 this year in Fukushima before its route around all 47 of Japan's prefectures. The very first competition of these Games - softball on July 21 - was also played in Fukushima.

Food at the Games Village was served using Fukushima ingredients, while the flower bouquets presented to medallists were harvested from Fukushima.

And yet, without visitors and with travelling media subject to restrictions, it was difficult to showcase the region's actual recovery, even with these symbolic measures.

Scandals: C

The Games were hit by a series of scandals in the lead-up to D-Day.

Among others, Olympic composer Keigo Oyamada quit over accounts in a 1995 magazine article that he bullied classmates with disabilities.

On the eve of the opening ceremony, organisers sacked Mr Kentaro Kobayashi as director after it emerged that he had poked fun at the Holocaust in 1998 when he was part of a comedy duo.

Questions have emerged over how these individuals were appointed in the first place.

Some point out that politicians such as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who in 2017 praised Adolf Hitler for "having the right motives", still have their job.

Amid the witch-hunt are voices that say this was a missed opportunity for second chances and for these individuals to apologise and make amends. The comments were, after all, made decades ago and may not represent who they are now, they say.