Malachy Clerkin: If Japan can find a way the Olympics have to be worth saving

Games seem to be the one event on the planet too big to put on and too big to cancel

 Olympic rings outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. It seems nobody can bring themselves to pull the plug. Photograph:  Adam Davy/PA Wire

Olympic rings outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. It seems nobody can bring themselves to pull the plug. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire

 

Mad week, all in all. On Monday morning the front of The Irish Times had it simple. “Government to resist quicker reopening” ran the headline on page one. By Thursday that had morphed into “Plan for faster reopening goes to Cabinet”. On Friday it was, “Hope is returning as reopening set to begin” .

At the time of writing it’s not clear what’s going to lead the Saturday edition but we’ll presume it’s pure Mardi Gras territory by now. Anything short of a big photo of Micheál Martin stripped to the waist with his tie around his head shouting ‘Let’s go f**king mental’ will be very underwhelming.

The change of pace makes for the oddest feeling. It’s like climbing Croagh Patrick in your bare feet, only to turn the corner and find a chairlift ready to whisk you up the final 200 yards.

For culchies living in Dublin, most of us had presumed there’d be no inter-county travel this side of July. But now it turns out the child can go and see freshly-jabbed Granny in a matter of days rather than months.

The speed of it all can obscure the fact that there’s still so much we can’t do. And so much we won’t be able to do for over a month at the earliest. Still no five-a-side. Still no gym. Still no swimming pool.

Still no community centre humming to the screech of trainers and the thud of basketballs. Still no indoor sport of any kind. Still no crowds at outdoor sport of any kind. Still, still, still.

But there is progress, and it feels good. Good enough, in fact, to be jarring every time you are reminded of how bad things still are elsewhere. The news reports from India are so horrific they feel like they come from another time altogether. Brazil recorded almost the same number of Covid deaths as India on Thursday even though their population is seven times smaller.

Germany recorded more deaths than on all but two days during the entire first wave in spring 2020.

All of which makes it impossible to tell where we are in terms of the Covid timeline. The only thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that despite the good news on our little pinprick part of the map this week, we as a global population are nowhere near the end.

And although normally we wouldn’t dream of concerning ourselves with such grand calculations, there is the small matter of a global sporting gathering planned for 83 days’ time.

Cutting it fine

Maybe the most amazing thing about the fate of the Tokyo Olympics is that it hasn’t been decided yet. As if it’s the one event on the planet that is at the same time too big to put on and too big to cancel.

If the Olympics didn’t exist precisely nobody would suggest staging them in the middle of a global pandemic. But given that they do, it seems nobody can bring themselves to pull the plug.

There’s cutting it fine and there’s cutting it fine. The opening ceremony is supposed to take place 12 weeks from yesterday (Friday) and nobody on the planet can give a definitive answer as to whether it will happen or not. Twelve weeks is nothing. Flip the cap on a tube of toothpaste this morning and it’ll still be on the go come the putative start of the Olympics. (Stick to the recommended pea size, people. That long snake they do in the ads is Big Toothpaste messing with your heads).

On the face of it cancelling the Olympics ought to be a no-brainer. In the week where Japan has just announced a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other districts, the notion of importing anything up to 14,500 people from all corners of the globe for a two-week sports extravaganza seems a bit absurd. And it would be, except this is the Olympics we’re talking about.

Still, survey after survey in Japan says a broad swathe of the people don’t want the Games to go ahead, not beginning on July 23rd at any rate. The most recent poll has 39.2 per cent of people saying cancel them altogether and 32.8 per cent opting for a second postponement. When you’re at 71 per cent against, it’s hard to present good logic to keep going.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that Japan’s vaccine rollout has been particularly glacial. The Japan Times reported during the week that because of poor logistics, the country has only jabbed 1 per cent of its population and also that they’re sitting on 14 million unused doses.

All the countries coming out of hiding are using the jabs as their shield on the way out. Japan has bigger reason than most to do so and yet for whatever reason they haven’t hit their stride yet.

Right now they’ve kicked the can down the road to June. They are proceeding as if it’s going to happen, as presumably they must until they are forced to decide otherwise.

Earlier this week the organising committee issued the guidelines for athletes and officials attending. Endless testing, no mingling with other nations, meals alone in your room. And so on and on and on. Welcome to the Alcatraz Games. No touching.

TV bigwigs

And yet, if it happens, there will be no shortage of athletes from every country who are only mad to dive in and get going. And no shortage of TV bigwigs from around the world who will plug it in for broadcast. No shortage of sponsors, either. The cynical – and realistic – view is that it will be fealty to said sponsors and broadcast bigwigs that ultimately decides whether the show goes ahead or not. But they only get to hold that sway because they know people will watch.

The Games, battered and tarnished as they are, still exist as the one good idea the world has ever had for sharing sport amongst itself. Despite all the drugs scandals, all the bribing and slush-funding and ticket touting, all the spivs and crooks and cheats, the Olympics still have a pull on the global sporting populace unrivalled by any other event.

If Japan can find a way, they are surely worth saving.

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