The Guardian view on the Tokyo Olympics: in Japan, but not for Japan


Show caption Flag-bearers Hannah Mills and Mohamed Sbihi of Great Britain lead the team out at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Opinion The Guardian view on the Tokyo Olympics: in Japan, but not for Japan Editorial Many will cheer on the Games. But we should also understand the host nation’s reluctance Fri 23 Jul 2021 18.25 BST Share on Facebook

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After a year and a half of the pandemic, the world is short of causes for celebration. Diversion, spectacle and surprise may never have been more welcome. At a time of growing divisions between and within countries, shared interests and endeavours are welcome. Despite their muted atmosphere, the Olympics and Paralympics are likely to raise spirits internationally, with viewers cheering on extraordinary feats of human achievement.

Japan, however, has embarked on these events feeling anxious and resentful. The last Games in Tokyo, in 1964, epitomised and accelerated the country’s remarkable modernisation and reentry to the international community after the second world war. The 2020 Olympics were supposed to cement its resurgence from the horrors of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown 10 years ago. When postponed, they were rebranded as the moment the world would revel in its escape from Covid-19. But with the pandemic raging globally, the public fears increased infection or imported variants from tens of thousands of visitors descending upon a country where fewer than a quarter of people are fully vaccinated. A state of emergency is already in place in Tokyo, with cases at a six-month high.

Friday’s opening ceremony, watched in person by fewer than 1,000 grandees – and greeted by a street protest – was billed as a “sobering” evening rather than the usual flamboyant gala. Stadiums will be mostly empty throughout, with almost no spectators at most events to reduce the risk of superspreading incidents (like the thousands of cases associated with the Euros). Some competitors were forced to pull out after becoming infected before they could travel. But scores of athletes and others have tested positive for Covid since their arrival in Japan and despite tight security around the Olympic village, there are already reports of other members of delegations dodging the strict protocols.

It is to be hoped that, with events now under way, the Japanese public may at least find some pleasure and satisfaction in watching – albeit from home – the extraordinary performances of their athletes and others. The excitement that often steals up as the Olympics begin may lift spirits, and the impact upon Covid rates could in the end be low if people behave responsibly. But there is no question that proceeding was, and is, a huge gamble. Organisers and participants must behave impeccably to ensure that the reluctant hosts do not pay too high a cost.