Olympic Games in trouble in Tokyo

In the absence of spectators, most events will be watched on TV by people thousands of miles away from Japan. In the host country itself, there is very little interest or enthusiasm that is visible

Photo Courtesy: Twitter/
Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @HimaDas8

Prakash Bhandari

Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun had asked rhetorically in May, “If the highly divisive Tokyo Olympics are staged without the public’s blessing, what will have been gained and lost?”

As the two-week long summer Olympics take off in Tokyo this week, streets in Tokyo are seen to be deserted, people are indifferent, Covid-19 cases are surging and the 11,000 athletes and 60,000 officials, journalists and sponsors who have arrived find their movement restricted. An app monitors their movement and even journalists cooped up in hotels are allowed to make 15-minute forays into the nearby mall. There is nothing to do, they report.

This is undoubtedly one of the most unusual Olympic Games, though there have been other unusual Games in the last one hundred years and more. Though not one of the most expensive (Beijing takes the honour for spending 42 billion US dollars), Japan is spending upwards of 15 billion dollars (one billion dollars amount to INR 74 thousand Crores) to stage the Games.

While hosting the Games is associated with national pride and hopes of increased employment, tourism and investment, such hopes have often been belied. Most host cities have lost money after hosting the Games, one of the few exceptions being Los Angeles in 1984 which already had the infrastructure.

Host cities have also struggled to maintain the infrastructure after completion of the Games which require huge capacities, stadia and facilities that prove difficult to sustain. In 1976, Denver had in fact backed out of hosting the Olympics after Colorado voters indicated that they didn’t want to pay for the Games.

The Games this year in Tokyo has been mired in controversy, primarily because experts feared the Games would be a super-spreader since an overwhelming majority of the Japanese population are yet to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The fear of the virus is keeping spectators away and advertisers in Japan are dropping out. Not surprisingly, Japan has given up on gaining any revenue from Tokyo 2020 Games.

Ironically, the IOC on the other hand will still rake in its share of revenue from broadcasting rights and direct sponsors, which explains its insistence that the Games, postponed last year, be held at any cost.

The Games in Japan, some say, are jinxed. But Japan and Tokyo are not the only ones in history to have suffered from rank, bad luck. Japan had actually bid successfully to host the Games in 1940, the first country in Asia to have won the bid. But its war with China in 1937 intervened. Several nations threatened to boycott the Games in response and Japan forfeited the right to host the Games, citing rising costs of the war, as well as floods in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe.

In 1964 when Tokyo did finally host the Olympics, the Games were boycotted by North Korea, China, and Indonesia after IOC refused to allow some of their athletes to participate. It was also the first year that South Africa was banned from the Olympics for its policy of apartheid.

Bad luck had also followed Rome’s successful bid to host the 1908 Olympic Games. Two years into preparations for the event, disaster struck: Mount Vesuvius erupted, causing serious destruction in the cities near the base of the volcano. Overwhelmed by the cost of recovery, Italy gave up its Olympic bid.

When World War 1 broke out in July 1914, Berlin was already preparing to host the 1916 Olympics. But with most of Europe at war, officials considered moving the 1916 Olympics to more neutral territory like the United States, which hadn’t yet entered the war. But the question wasn’t just where to host the Games, but whether there would be enough athletes to compete in them. Ultimately, the 1916 Games were called off.

The IOC awarded Berlin the hosting honours for the 1936 Olympics to mark its return to the international community after its defeat in World War I. But the rise of Hitler and Germany barring Jewish athletes from competing outraged many countries. A movement to boycott the 1936 Olympics swiftly spread in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Sweden, and beyond. Amidst all the controversy, Berlin went on to hold the Games. But for the next one decade the Games were put on hold because of the second world war.

Ironically, 20 years before the United States itself attacked Afghanistan, it led other countries to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Sixty-six countries joined the boycott including Japan, Canada and West Germany. Four years later, the Soviet Union turned the table and led a 14-country boycott of the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles in retaliation for the 1980 boycott.

The 1972 Games in Munich were of course marred by a deadly terrorist attack. Eight terrorists wearing tracksuits and carrying gym bags filled with grenades and assault rifles, breached the Olympic Village before dawn on September 5, 1972. The terrorists, associated with Black September, an extremist faction of the Palestinians Liberation Organisation (PLO), entered the apartment complex where Israeli athletes were staying. Once inside, they murdered two members of the Israeli team and took nine others hostage. Audiences around the world then watched in horror as the international nightmare unfolded on live TV.

The terrorists demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners from Israeli jails as well as two German terrorists held in West German custody. When authorities stormed the village in a bid to rescue the hostages after a 23-hour standoff, all the hostages, one West German police officer and five Black September members were killed. Although this was the first time an act of terror was broadcast live and took place during a major global sporting event, the show went on.

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