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Olympic Games that nobody wanted confound critics

Perseverance of US gymnast Simone Biles is an apt metaphor for the past 18 months

If cynicism were a sport the battle for gold would be a close one. The Tokyo Olympics have been marred with accusations of arrogance and carelessness, cast as a mere cash grab to rival the worst greed the sporting world has to offer, held in spite of Japan’s rising Covid-19 case rates and public opposition.

And the sceptics seemed perfectly positioned for their told-ya-so moment at the end of the opening ceremony. The most controversial games in memory – the ones that no one seemed to want – opened with a muted display that couldn’t quite work out how to commemorate the tragedy of the past 18 months, while also engendering the customary jubilation of the occasion.

Protestors gathered outside, the stadium was sparsely populated, the trumped-up image of an empty and disease-ridden city paraded around social media as ultimate proof of the hubris of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Olympics-or-bust aura, wrote Mike Wise in the Washington Post, feels like teenagers getting ready for prom at a hotel that happens to be on fire. Who celebrates at a time like this?


It is not hard to understand how this sentiment has taken hold. Mass gatherings have become inextricable from notions of disease and contagion. International travel – an obvious necessity for a tournament that audaciously invites thousands of athletes from across the world to a singular city – has been drummed into our heads as scary, seeped with cavalier and gratuitous risk. For plenty, it is enough to just see a large crowd on a screen and feel a pang of anxiety.


In a world traumatised by a pandemic, the whole thing was a precarious operation. But it is in all of this difficulty that the games have triumphed: there are no cheering crowds but the unfettered joy of an athlete winning gold is still palpable; masks to prevent the spread of a respiratory disease are taken off moments before running world records are beaten; social-distancing measures do not stop teammates embracing each other in victory or defeat. In fact, the 2020 Olympics have emerged as a perfect mirror of the messy and complicated world we find ourselves in.

Because over the past year and a half most have not shied away from joy, rather they have figured out how to find it in the most adverse of circumstances. And as we mourn not just the immense loss of life, but also our very way of living, we have found new things to take heart in. And the knowledge that the murky grief that has pervaded our shared consciousness will eventually abate has been welcome assurance no matter how bad the times.

But, of course, the case against holding the competition has always seemed a solid one: are these moments really worthy exchange for increasing case rates? Is the IOC tyrannically enforcing the games going ahead against the best wishes of its host nation?

Maybe, maybe not. The games were always going to be a careful epidemiological balancing act. And since they have started public opinion has begun to shift in their favour. But one thing has remained stable over the course of the pandemic: professional pessimists have always told us coronavirus is not going away any time soon, that it is something we must learn to accommodate for the long haul. If that is true then the case for calling off the games grows flimsier by the second: if not hold them now then when? Perhaps their answer is never. If that is the case then we may be wary of who we take our cues from.

Bold vision

The most alluring facet of the Olympics is its impractical daring: an all-or-nothing extravagance that builds villages and velodromes and sees athletes defy what we could ever believe possible. Now is not the time to eschew the boldness of that vision, but rather embrace it as a welcome tonic, and take it as a reminder what we are still capable of.

There have been the obvious triumphs: Dublin’s Kellie Harrington in the boxing; the Skibbereen rowers Fintan McCarthy and Emily Hegarty; the sheer glee of millions of teenagers discovering “horse dancing” (née dressage) across TikTok.

But so too have there been symbols of a life that we will return to soon: the importance of cultural exchange was no better exemplified than by the Irish team bowing to Japanese officials at the opening ceremony; comity between nations that can easily be forgotten amid flight bans and hard borders, seen in Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi opting to share the high jump gold (a poignant move that would have been twee under any other circumstances).

But it was in the plight of Simone Biles, the world’s most decorated gymnast, that the games took on a new resonance. We cannot aspire to the gravity-defying greatness of Biles. But as she picked herself up and pushed ahead in spite of everything it is hard to think of a more apt tribute to the past 18 months.

The Olympics is not the silver bullet that will solve all – or even any – problems of the pandemic-ravaged world. But the games that nobody wanted have quickly shown themselves to be the games that perhaps we all needed.