OpEd: No Ode to Joy in Tokyo

(ATR) With less than 10 weeks to go, these are the most fraught Games in my 30 years covering the Olympics says Ed Hula.

(ATR) The last time the Olympics came to Japan, conductor Seiji Ozawa led a rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the Opening Ceremony for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

For the first time ever, Ozawa led five choruses stationed on each continent, in addition to an orchestra and a chorus of 2,000 in Nagano.

As one of the crowd in the Minami Sports Park Stadium that afternoon in February, I was struck by the performance. While it was a technical wonder of Olympian stature, the powerful music also delivered a jolt of joy. The crowd - including this reporter - was on its feet to join in singing the most famous lyric of the Beethoven piece, "All men become brothers".

A jolt of joy. More than 20 years later, Tokyo needs it more than ever.

With less than 10 weeks to go before the postponed Olympic Games, these are the most fraught in my 30 years covering the Olympics.

No, I am not worried about whether venues are ready. They are. Or the quality of transport in Tokyo. World’s best. Not even the thought of the sultry heat of summer on the Kantō Plain bothers me. How quaint it was two years ago when worry about the heat seemed to be the biggest issue facing the Games.

Tokyo is easily the best prepared of any Olympic host city I’ve seen. Even so, the threat of losing the Games with just two months or so to go weighs heavily.

Even after a one-year Olympics postponement, the virus continues to disrespect deadlines set by the humans organizing the Games. States of emergency in places such as Tokyo, Saitama and Hokkaido just weeks before the Olympics do not inspire confidence that Japan is ready for an influx of up to 90,000 officials.

Or even a fraction of them.

The talk is brave from IOC President Thomas Bach and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide that the Olympics will take place. Test events that are almost kabuki-like shadows of Games that might never happen, pop up by the week.

Against this backdrop of worry about the threat the Olympics might pose to the health of the nation itself -- not to mention the staggering billions needed to pay for the postponement -- it’s easy to understand why 80 percent of Japanese people wish the Games would just go away.

Worry has made the Olympics unwelcome in a society renowned for hospitality. Instead of a joyful welcome, apprehension has driven more than 350,000 to sign a petition calling for the Olympics to be cancelled.

The Olympic Torch Relay has been the greatest warm up act for the Olympics since the 1980s. Today it is in near isolation because of corona countermeasures. Instead of a magnet attracting attention and – oh yes, joy -- to the Olympics, some prefectures have tried to block the flame’s visit.

Even athletes for whom the Games might be the peak of their careers seem uninterested. Just last week Naomi Osaka discussed her ambivalence about the once in a lifetime experience of competing in a hometown Olympics. Athletes who compete in Tokyo will live in a bubble with limited contact with the outside world.

Should the Games proceed as intended in July, it seems unlikely the mood will suddenly brighten. Hundreds of thousands of foreign fans who bring humor, energy and joy have been banished.

Another unknown is whether Japanese people will be able to attend. If they are, they will be prohibited from shouts of joy for Olympians on the field of play.

We don’t know much about the Opening Ceremony now set for July 23. Not much has been said about what is ordinarily a joyful start to the Olympics. Budgets have been cut; the ceremony producer left the project long ago.

It’s hard to find reasons to be optimistic. But I still cling to one last, faint hope: that Maestro Ozawa will step out of retirement to command an orchestra one last time, summoning the magic to open an Olympics in need of a jolt of joy.

Homepage photo: Tokyo 2020

This article originally appeared in Mainichi newspapers.

Written by Ed Hula

For general comments or questions,click here.

Your best source of news about the Olympics is AroundTheRings.com, for subscribers only.