“This place is a ghost town. It’s kind of depressing”. That was the first text I received from a world champion athlete I work with after he made it to Tokyo. This athlete has been competing at the highest levels of their sport for the last three years, and even though he grew used to restrictions surrounding pandemic-era tournaments, Tokyo feels especially rough. Part of it has to do with the lofty expectations he always had about his first Olympic experience. “If I don’t do well, I am not going to worry about it too much. Paris will be my real ‘first Olympics’. This doesn’t really count”. This is not the type of mentality one would expect from an athlete of this calibre, especially an athlete that is remarkably humble, diligent, and proud to represent his country. It just shows how devastatingly empty the Tokyo Games feel for many athletes.
The blame for such widespread apathy—and it widespread—has to do with the host country. As things stand, local support for the Olympics has nosedived over the last year. A recent poll by Asahi Shimbun found that 68 per cent of Japanese respondents doubted organizers could control infections, and 55 per cent said definitively that they did not want the Games to happen. Part of this sentiment has to do with Japan’s low vaccination rate. Japan has under 15 per cent of its population fully vaccinated, which is about one-third of the going rate for most wealthy nations. There are many reasons for Japan’s slow vaccine rollout, including a cultural reluctance towards vaccinations, but no matter the cause, it does make hosting the Games far more problematic. Knowing that the local population is so against it has a marked effect on many athletes.
“It’s nothing like Rio or London. Not even in the same universe”. This sentiment came from a client of mine that has been planning her retirement for a couple of years, and it always centred on “after Tokyo”. Now, she is not so sure. For her, 2020 was going to be it, but she has this overwhelming feeling that her athletic career “can’t end like this”. In her situation, “this” means strict lockdown restrictions, very controlled movements, and an Olympic Village that looks absolutely nothing like the villages she experienced in London and Rio. “In London and Rio, there was so much joy and celebration. Obviously everybody was there because they had a job to do, but there was still a sense of excitement and accomplishment”. Part of working with this client has been an extensive
Will they, won’t they?
I recently stumbled upon an article from 2019 that mentioned the heat at the Tokyo Games as one of the biggest threats to a successful Olympics. Reading articles from before 2020 is always a strange experience; I almost feel a sense of smugness when I read anything written by an understandably naïve writer. If only the heat were the main problem (although it still is a big one for athletes and event staff alike). But beyond weather, we are seeing more and more athletes being forced to withdraw. Coco Gauff, the 17-year-old American tennis phenom, was forced to withdraw after testing positive. Every day, there are more reports of athletes in the Olympic Village testing positive. Some teams might have to forfeit because COVID protocols mean that many team members cannot participate in early-round matches. Things are looking so bad, even the most prominent corporate sponsors like Toyota are pulling their commercials. Despite all the arduous work by the athletes and the organizers, there is still a real chance that this entire Olympics will be cancelled within a couple of days. Like a ghost, it will disappear into thin air, and it may haunt us for years to come.