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Cultivated Delusions At The Tokyo Olympics – OpEd

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Australia’s Channel 7 team was all about ignoring history as its selected commentators went into describing, poorly, the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. The trio was poorly equipped culturally, geographically and totally (the Japanese component was barely credible: “We want to make things warm for you,” she chirped), to deal with the eclectic groupings of the athletes as they assembled.  Clichés and platitudes clogged the commentary as each team strode into the stadium.  

It would have been interesting had they noted the militaristic, political echo that follows the beginning, and end, of each Olympic Games.  “In the Olympic Opening ceremony,” remarked Australia’s foremost sporting journalist Gideon Haigh in 2016, “serried ranks of well drilled, well resourced, uniformed national exemplars march behind their country’s flag.  Nothing could be a more political event than that.”

And political it was.  The torch relay was not, as the intoxicated romantics on the International Olympic Committee payroll claim, a creature of Greek antiquity but one of Nazi creativity. Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels were enamoured with the idea, though it was Carl Diem, secretary general of the organising committee of the 1936 Berlin games who first proposed it.  That great German armaments institution, the Krupp Company, did its bit, creating and sponsoring the torches which were intended to burn for ten minutes. “The first torch manufactured,” writes German sports historian Arnd Krüger, “was used to ignite a new furnace for the production of long-range Krupp canons.”

Behind Tokyo 2020 was a sense of financed apology, with most of the Olympic commentariat bulging with self-interest in keeping this indulgent exercise on the road, even in the face of the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Influenza.  This was a tournament imposed upon a populace by cadres of sporting officials, an anti-democratic, despotic, insensitive gesture based on revenue incentives and broadcasting rights.  The focus had to be on the athletes, the show pony alibis, who distracted from the logisticians and backroom players.

The distraction was, at points, impressive: streamed images of torrential tears, the mingling of sweat from exhausted bodies and tormented competitors, the meeting of flags across competing tracks and ecstatic expressions of the human spirit.  There was video footage of vulnerable winners and those barely defeated; sharp camera focus on such noble acts as the sharing of a gold medal between Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar in the men’s high jump.  This was flesh and feelings made substantive in film.  “When people experience inwardly periods of greatness, they represent those periods through external forms,” said that man of theatre, show and murderous finality, one Adolf Hitler.  “Their word thus expressed is more convincing than the spoken word: it is the word in stone.”  

This was all meant to make a difference, and outside the main Olympic stadium and the venues this was taking place, Tokyo was facing an aggressive pandemic and public health restrictions. The stadium hosting the closing ceremony, from the air, looked like a capsule of insulated distraction.  Those interested were watching at home; the stadium seats remained empty.  

The pandemic-minded types were also far from impressed by the implications of holding the event.  IOC president Thomas Bach opined that the COVID-19 infections surging in Tokyo had no links, directly or otherwise, to the Games.  Tsuyoshi Masuda, head of the Japan Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions, disagreed: “[H]olding the Olympics sent a strong message to citizens that infection control measures would become less strict.”

The budget minded types (how dare they question the uplifting image of the Games?) would certainly have raised their eyebrows at the official price tag: $15.4 billion.  The calibration led to other options as to where the money might have been better spent: building 300 hospitals with 300 beds each; 1,200 elementary schools. “The problem is disentangling what is Olympics cost and what is just general infrastructure spending that would have happened anyways but ways but was sped up for the Olympics,” suggests sports economist Victor Matheson.

The bidding process itself demands that host cities and authorities will cover excess costs. “This means,” contend the authors of a study in Environment Planning, “that hosts get locked in to a non-negotiable commitment to cover such increases.”

Bach, being his usual ostensibly noble self, put the case that finance was no bar to the events.  “We would have cancelled the Games 15 months ago,” he told The Associated Press.  “Financially, it would have been the easiest solution for the IOC.  But we decided at the time not to cancel the Games, not to draw on the insurance we had at the time.”

Such views should be treated with a healthy dose of stern scepticism.  “For the IOC,” sports editorial writer for the Mainichi Shimbun Takiguchi Takashi points out, “what is important is not whether there are spectators in the stands, but that the games go ahead and are broadcast to the entire world.”  Broadcasting rights constitute 70% of IOC revenue, characterised by such lucrative arrangements as that of NBCUniversal’s $12 billion payment for rights to broadcast all Olympic events from the 2014 Sochi Winter games to the 2032 Summer Olympics.  

The response to the Olympics by its defenders has generally been one of cultivated delusion.  NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was banking on it, given his network’s promise to broadcast 7,000 hours of the Tokyo games.  From the moment the opening ceremony takes place, he insisted, “everybody forgets [concerns like COVID-19] and enjoys the seventeen days.” 

This ploy has worked, at least in the past.  Robert Baade and Matheson note the buoyancy that follows the holding of the games: in London 2012, for instance, there were those proud to be British and even happy to pay amounts “above any costs associated with actually attending any of the events.”  Despite Japanese success in the medal tally, Tokyo 2020 promises a different story.

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Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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