Travel to the ancient Olympics was possible in almost any conditions – the Games continued throughout the Peloponnesian War – although spectators may not have relished conditions when they arrived. There was no permanent accommodation in remote Olympia, so visitors camped in tents, plagued by summer heat and flies.
The Games of the XXXII Olympiad, better known as Tokyo 2020, will start next Friday in a city with tens of thousands of luxury hotel rooms. They will, nevertheless, become the first Olympic Games in history, ancient or modern, to take place without spectators. After a one-year postponement because of Covid-19, prime minister Yoshihide Suga has decided he cannot risk an Olympic celebration when only a third of the Japanese population have received even a single dose of vaccine.
This is sad. But it is the correct decision. The doctors running Japan’s Covid-19 response advised clearly and publicly that the Games should be held behind closed doors. Suga initially defied them and said the stadiums would be half full. He then reversed course. The experience of the past 18 months suggests that decisions taken for reasons of political expediency, against medical advice, seldom look wise in retrospect. Suga did at least change his mind quickly.
Any sporting event lacking spectators is diminished. Mutual energy between athlete and crowd is part of what makes the spectacle. The question, then, is what can be salvaged from the Tokyo Games.
Most of the meanings that Japan once attached to Tokyo 2020 no longer make sense. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe meant them as the capstone to his national revival; Covid-19 has put paid to that. Japan wanted to show the world how the Fukushima prefecture has recovered from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, but such visitors as can travel to Japan will be quarantined in Tokyo hotel rooms.
All that is left of these Games are the athletes. It is to them that Japan must look for meaning. Over the years, the Olympics have become an increasingly bloated spectacle of nationalism and marketing. These Games will be the closest to ancient Olympia in decades. If sporting excellence gets its due, Tokyo 2020 can still be a success.
The duty of the International Olympic Committee and the organisers is to ensure that Covid-19 does not interfere with the sport. Athletes must follow strict rules on mask wearing, social distancing and celebration, even though the vast majority will be vaccinated. Somebody is bound to break those rules. Unless the violation is malicious, the organisers should exercise the greatest possible leniency. If any athlete is expelled for violating coronavirus rules it will be a failure.
Similarly, the organisers plan to carry out daily Covid-19 tests on athletes. With so many tests there are bound to be false positives. Again, rules should be followed with the greatest possible generosity towards competitors. Better an asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus rows a boat or rides a horse than an uninfected athlete is barred after five years of training.
The pity is that these Olympic Games have come a couple of months too early. As the vaccines are rolled out around the world, there is hope that Covid-19’s deadliest effects are on the way out. In the autumn, the stadiums could have been filled, as they recently were in Europe, where vaccination rates are high, for the Euro 2020 football tournament. The world is hungry for sporting spectacle. Let all eyes be on the athletes, and let the Games commence.