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Suppose they held an Olympic Games and no one could come?

In my time there have been more Olympic Games held under some form of serious cloud than not. Four Games in a row (from Montreal 1976 to Seoul 1988) were hit by one boycott or another; Mexico 1968 was held against the backdrop of deadly conflict between protesting students and the army; Athens 2004 was barely ready to go on time; Munich 1972 was hit by a terrorist attack on the Olympic village.

For Rio 2016 the fear was that the Games would be struck down by the Zika virus. These fears didn’t come to pass. But the global impact of the SARS-CoV2 virus was so severe as to push Tokyo 2020 into 2021.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 delayed the Tokyo Olympics by a year, but The Show (it seems) Must Go On, without so much as a change of year in the official title. The big occasion for which athletes the world over train for four years – or in this case, five – begins on Friday night with an Opening Ceremony that will be held, like almost all of the games themselves, in a stadium devoid of spectators.

We have all become used to sporting events being televised over the past sixteen months in empty stadia, whether accompanied by Fake Noise or not. But we are about to witness more than a fortnight of the world’s ultimate sporting spectacle played out as if the world’s ultimate hostage video.

The pandemic is not under control in Japan. On Friday July 17 Tokyo reported 1271 new cases of COVID-19, compared with 822 a week earlier and as high as any numbers reported for six months. [1] Across Japan approximately 20 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. [2]

What’s more, the people of Japan don’t want it any more. Ipsos reported this week that 78% of people polled in Japan don’t want the Olympics to go ahead. [3]

So why are the Tokyo Olympics proceeding? Count the money. Covering the costs of construction, of staging. Providing benefit to the Japanese government. Giving a return on investment to the sponsors. Athletes pursuing their lifelong dreams… well that too and thanks for the reminder.

Already, the cracks are forming. At least five athletes have already tested positive for COVID-19 since arriving In Japan, and an official has become the first resident of the Olympic Village to test positive. [4]

And Liz Cambage, one of the star players of the Australian womens basketball team, has withdrawn from the Games, citing panic attacks and anxiety about the bubble and performing in empty stadia.[5]

The 2020-in-2021 Olympic games, held at the height of a global pandemic. What could possibly go wrong?

And who will be held accountable for whatever does go wrong?

I love the Olympic Games. I blogged extensively about the Athens Games in 2004 and London 2012. I gave up on Beijing 2008 midway through, and for Rio 2016 I stopped before the Opening Ceremony and recently pieced together some subsequent thoughts from my Twitter feed.

In 2021 I am approaching the Games with a heavy feeling of ambivalence, of an IOC proceeding with a massive case of tone-deafness, of a movement that has strayed so far from Pierre de Coubertin’s ideals that they are no longer on the same planet, of a multi-disciplinary global festival that has become simply unsustainable in its magnitude.

This coming Friday, let the Games begin. And let them proceed to their conclusion safely for all their participants.


[1] Coronavirus news updates and information in Japan. (2021). Retrieved 17 July 2021, from

[2] Japan - COVID-19 Overview - Johns Hopkins. (2021). Retrieved 17 July 2021, from


[4] Tokyo 2020 confirm first COVID-19 case in Olympic Village. (2021). Retrieved 17 July 2021, from


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