What the Olympic Village reveals about Japan’s readiness

Olympic village 2020 tokyo

Pillow juxtaposition, souvenir condoms and a plumbingbased dig at previous host nations: by last Sunday evening, and with a month left before curtain-up, the Tokyo 2020 pre-Olympic stories were already writing themselves.

The narrative-generator, on this occasion, was a first-glimpse press tour inside the Olympic Village. This sprawl of buildings in Tokyo Bay will eventually become desirable seafront flats, but feels more immediately destined to be the backdrop of a grim news bulletin later this summer that begins: “The outbreak has been traced to the wrestlers’ sauna . . . ”

A central purpose of the village tour, which dwelt upon the various measures put in place both to limit infection and test daily for its spread, was to allay precisely this type of concern. The pillows on the cardboard beds in the (fairly small) shared athletes’ rooms will now be placed at opposite ends in an effort to reduce transmission risk.

Despite this, the concerns refuse to abate: last week’s positive test for the Delta variant in an arriving member of the Ugandan team, and the decision to allow the rest of the team to travel to their host town in central Japan, is a very much sloppier look than the country wanted at this point.

In theory, the Tokyo 2020 village bubble will not, as at previous Olympics, host an effervescent festival of cosmopolitan co-mingling, but will instead, via stern rules, Perspex screens and artificially intelligent crowd-tracking software in the canteen, serve the now paramount purpose of putting this whole spectacle behind us without a medical catastrophe. The Games motto “united in emotion” looms in giant letters behind the village plaza, but fretful obedience rather than sporty bonhomie may be the unifying emotion the organisers are secretly longing for.

And perhaps necessarily so. Experts have repeatedly warned against holding these Games, using terms that leave the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the Tokyo organisers and the International Olympic Committee with the absolute burden of proving those warnings wrong.

The decision to hold the Games this summer demanded a combination of coercion, optimism, delusion and political gamble, all of which were readily mustered. All the subsequent contortions and paradoxes – some plain silly and others potentially life-threatening – are essential to disguise just how big a stride into the risk-laden unknown has been taken. If the new “playbook” rules ban athletes from shopping and dining outside the village, for instance, why have organisers been at such pains to equip it with a fully staffed bureau de change?

The condom conundrum arose during the tour as organisers were pressed on a knotty issue of policy. The earlier declaration that tens of thousands of condoms would be handed out to village residents jarred with the fierce exhortation against close contact between athletes. The interim solution – that they be distributed but not used – was roundly mocked but, in a triumphant show of strength, the decision was then announced to distribute them on the point of departure as latex educational emissaries from Japan to the world.

Later in the week, a similarly madcap series of policy lurches centred on the distribution of alcohol at the event venues: the sale of booze flickering conceptually between on and off as organisers groped for a balance between public opinion, a deadly virus and sponsorship commitments.

But in one important respect, the village tour was illuminating. There are many factors behind Japan’s determination to push ahead with the Olympics. The political calculus for Suga stands out, as does the natural revulsion at letting all this preparation and expenditure go to waste.

But critical too is the script that the organisers appear to be writing in their heads: a wrenching, cinematic chaos of razor-edge decisions from which Japan successfully pulls off the “miracle” Games and is remembered as the field on which the world took its defining stand for normal life.

“Unlike certain other hosts, everything here is fully prepared,” said one of the officials leading the village tour. “The athletes are guaranteed hot water as soon as they arrive.”

This comment, and others like it, reflects a sentiment that comfortably predates the pandemic, echoing the instincts that surrounded the 1964 Games in Japan and suggesting a continuing desire to prove the country’s developed status to the world despite that not really being in question. The double challenge of having hot water in the village and outsmarting a dangerous virus may be a stronger motivator than many have guessed.

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