‘Hosting Olympics amid pandemic is like Simone Biles doing a Yurchenko Double Pike… too difficult, but possible’: Roy Tomizawa
“In 1964, Japan was hoping to be embraced and welcomed by the rest of the world. And they were, very, very warmly. But in 2021, the world is hoping to be welcome and embraced by Japan. It’s not going to be a warm welcome,” says author and historian Roy Tomizawa.
Tokyo: As he starts talking about the difficulty of hosting an Olympic Games in the middle of a raging pandemic, author and historian Roy Tomizawa turns to American gymnast Simone Biles.
“Organising an Olympics and Paralympics in this pandemic is like Simone Biles doing a Yurchenko Double Pike. It’s just too difficult. No one can do it, except Biles. Maybe Japan can do it too,” author and historian Roy Tomizawa tells Firstpost just ahead of Tokyo hosting its second Olympics after the 1964 edition.
The 1964 Games—held almost two decades after Japan’s defeat in World War II—are said to have not only boosted their economy and propped up the self-esteem of a country grappling with defeat in the war, but also revealed a new Japan to the world.
In sharp contrast, the legacy that the city’s second Olympics—starting on Friday—will leave are uncertain. The pandemic not only necessitated that overseas fans be banned from travelling to Japan, but local spectators also will not be in stadiums at most venues. As a result, the Olympics have been branded as the ultimate Exclusion Games.
Tomizawa, who has been based in Tokyo for a while now, recounts the level of anticipation there were in Japan for these Games just a couple of years ago.
Torch 1964 and Torch 2020 meet in Matsudo, Chiba at a Torch “Kiss” ceremony. With 2-time Olympian Shuji Tsurumi, who won 4 medals in gymnastics at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. #Tokyo2020 #1964thegreatestyear pic.twitter.com/vbMx6h4w4L
— Roy Tomizawa (@roytomitomi) July 3, 2021
“Up to the end of 2019 the build-up to the Tokyo Games was very similar to the 1964 Games. There was very high level of anticipation in Japan. We were on the verge of witnessing the greatest Olympics in history, at least from an economics perspective. Tickets for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics were over-subscribed as were volunteer registrations. In-bound tourism was at a record high. The 2019 Rugby World Cup, which was in the country for about six weeks in the fall of 2019, showed the world how exciting a place Japan is when an international sports tournament is held here. There was just tremendous anticipation that Tokyo 2020 was going to be the cherry on top, the opportunity for Japan to boast about how wonderful a destination it is. The organisers would have had the opportunity to hold up Tokyo 2020 as a Games in the mould of 1964 Tokyo, or 1992 Barcelona: both Olympics that served the economy rather than an economy that served the Olympics.
“Then, in early 2020, COVID-19 ended that dream. Tourism stopped. Everyday behaviour was altered drastically. Tokyo 2020 was postponed and the fear of uncertainty made us all reassess the meaning of patience, flexibility and understanding,” he said.
While Tomizawa makes a case for the upcoming Tokyo Games to be called the “ultimate Inclusion Games”, he goes on to admit: “In 1964, Japan was hoping to be embraced and welcomed by the rest of the world. And they were, very, very warmly. But in 2021, circumstances have placed Japan in a very difficult position. The world is hoping to be welcome and embraced by Japan. It’s not going to be a warm welcome. For right or for wrong, the Japanese government is going ahead with these Games in the midst of a pandemic. You can argue, it is doing so against the will of its people.”
The will of people
In his book “1964—The Greatest Year in the History of Japan” Tomizawa painstakingly recreated the magic and the drama of the 1964 Games by talking to over 70 athletes who competed at those Games representing 16 different nations. He also dove into history to dig out accounts of the extraordinary lengths locals were going to to accommodate visitors. There were those who were taking out loans to convert their home toilets into flush ones in anticipation of the slim chance a foreigner might stop by to use it. And then there were people who were enrolling in English classes to be able to help a Westerner find directions should they be needed to do so.
The build-up for Tokyo 2021, on the other hand, has largely been negative with locals repeatedly voting, in multiple newspaper polls, against the idea of hosting the Games amidst the pandemic this year.
“The rhetoric in the mass media is changing slightly. But generally speaking, the mood is negative. Or at least of resignation from those against the Olympics. For those who enjoy the Olympics and want these to go ahead, they are resigned to the fact that the Games will be very subdued. There will be none of the energy and celebration of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, where Japan was totally ecstatic,” said Tomizawa, who has also been running a blog called The Olympians since 2015 where he writes on all things Tokyo 1964, Tokyo 2020, Japan and the Olympic movement.
“The Olympic movement has been dealing with public unfavorability towards the Games for decades now. The days leading up to the Rio Olympics were particularly negative. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong. But, in the end, those who enjoy the high-performance pursuit of the world’s top athletes may remember the stories of their heroes. The difference with Tokyo 2020 is that there’s a bigger health threat here, bigger than the zika virus. There’s a perceived threat that the Games could be a superspreader event. And you won’t know the impact of that until after the Games are over.”
Tomizawa was too young to attend the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, having just turned one on the day of the Opening Ceremony (his father was there, though, as a journalist). This time around, when Tokyo has its Olympic second act, he is in Tokyo and even had tickets for multiple events. But the decision of Japanese government and Tokyo 2020 organisers to bar even local fans from attending any events in Tokyo put paid to his dreams.
“When my wife saw the notification on her phone and broke the news to me, my heart sunk. I was really hoping there would be spectators. I had great tickets to a lot of events. So yeah, I was disappointed,” he said.
Tomizawa, though, is an eternal optimist.
“I’m hopeful that the increase in vaccination numbers in combination with the continued state of emergency creates safer conditions in the late summer. If we see signs of improving conditions then the Japanese government and the Tokyo 2020 organisers will see the Tokyo Paralympics as a chance to allow spectators and create a sense of excitement and optimism in the nation’s capital,” said Tomizawa, who has tickets to the Opening and Closing Ceremony of the Paralympics. “Maybe that will be the perfect tonic for Japan at that time.”
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