Tokyo’s ‘cursed’ Olympics finally kicks off as coronavirus cases keep rising

Tokyo Letter: Opening ceremony was out of sync with Japan’s solemn national mood

Few modern Olympics have escaped controversy. Ten days before the Mexico Games began in 1968, government forces murdered hundreds of unarmed civilian protesters. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, 11 Israeli athletes were killed following an attack by the Black September terrorist group.

In 1980, more than 60 countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A year before the Seoul Olympics in 1988, North Korean agents bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in a bid to disrupt the Games, killing 115 passengers. A staggering 1.5 million people were evicted so that the Beijing Olympics could go ahead in 2008.

Tokyo 2021 can hardly compete with such mayhem. Yet many Japanese will find themselves in the unusual position this weekend of agreeing with the country's gaffe-prone deputy prime minister Taro Aso, who famously called the Games "cursed".

Recalling the 1940 Olympics, which were cancelled because the host (Japan) was fighting the second World War, and the near-collapse of the Moscow event under the US-led boycott, Aso said last year: "It's a problem that's happened every 40 years – it's the cursed Olympics, and that's a fact." A few days later Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponed the 2020 Games.


The decision by the IOC to proceed this month has been deeply polarising. Many ordinary Tokyoites are uncomfortable sharing the world's most crowded city with the world's largest sporting event amid the worst pandemic in living memory. Medical experts have repeatedly demanded another postponement, forcing the government to erect strict quarantine firewalls and ban spectators from most of the 339 Olympic events.

The opening ceremony took place in a virtually empty stadium. More than 10,000 athletes trooped through a venue with roughly the same capacity as Croke Park – as fewer than 1,000 people looked on.

Jubilant expressions

Emperor Naruhito, the patron of the Tokyo Games, indicated he would avoid jubilant expressions such as the word "celebration" in his speech because it would be out of sync with the solemn national mood. Missing from the stadium were the captains of Japanese industry, including the boss of Japan's most valuable company, Toyota Motor Corporation, which has pulled all its ads from the Olympic Games.

Outside the stadium, bars and restaurants were dry and were asked to close early. Most Japanese watched the opening ceremony on television, if they watched it at all.

In truth, Japan has done better than many rich countries at keeping the pandemic under control. More than 15,000 people have died from the virus in Japan, but that's roughly three times the Irish fatality rate in a country with 25 times the Irish population.

The government and the IOC gambled that the vaccination programme, which has reached nearly a quarter of all Japanese, would ramp up as the Olympics arrived, though that has not stopped a steady rise in infections (up 50 per cent in the last week) as people tire of the country’s fourth state of emergency.

Meanwhile, infections in the Olympic community continue to rise. Organisers reported 82 Covid-19 cases among staffers and athletes, meaning many will have to sit out the competition.

It was not supposed to be like this. Japan’s successful pitch to host the Games in 2013 rode a wave of patriotism, amid the agonising recovery from the earthquake/tsunami disaster that had struck the northeast of the country two years earlier, taking about 20,000 lives.

Revivalist narrative

The 2013 bid dovetailed with the revivalist narrative championed by the government of then prime minister Shinzo Abe. “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country,” Abe said in his first major policy speech to a foreign audience. The government branded Tokyo 2020 the “recovery Olympics”. Critics who questioned the festive mood were branded unpatriotic. Abe himself recently dubbed critics “un-Japanese”.

To head off concerns about budget overruns (in a nation with public debt equivalent to roughly 250 per cent of GDP) the bid committee projected total costs at $7.3 billion. The official figure today is over $15 billion (€12.7 billion) but some estimates are nearly twice that. The tourist boom that was supposed to sweeten this bitter pill has evaporated in the pandemic. The organisers will have to refund at least 700,000 cancellations.

If Tokyoites feel little warmth for the Olympic organisers or the inevitable financial hangover, many sympathise with the athletes. "As long as people are safe, I want to see them do their best," said Richie Koyama, who runs a bakery a few hundred metres from the stadium in downtown Tokyo. "It is not their fault that the virus struck."

Can the athletes pull off sporting miracles over the next two weeks in eerily silent stadia? Among those watching at home will be Abe, who announced this week that he too would skip the opening ceremony.