Tokyo Saved the Olympics and Paralympics

[CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE] What was the true legacy of the Tokyo 2020 Games? Newsweek Japan Editor-in-Chief Nagaoka Yoshihiro reflects.

Now, some two and a half months since the end of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, traces of the athletes' presence have naturally vanished from the streets of Tokyo. Much of the endless debate that occurred—namely, whether or not to hold the event in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic—has been forgotten, with only the memory of the world's largest sporting event left vivid in people's minds.

For both Japan and Tokyo, the Olympics and Paralympics proved more bittersweet than ever. With the largest number of athletes participating in the Games from the largest number of countries and regions around the world, it was easy for politics to get involved, and an infectious disease only exacerbated the situation. The pandemic flipped the values that had endorsed "farther, greater, and faster" communication under the banner of globalization, replacing them with "closer, lesser, but faster nonetheless." By any stretch of the imagination, those first two values are inconsistent with hosting the world's largest sporting event.

Tokyo's answer to that self-contradiction was the close to total absence of spectators. Thus, for the first time in Olympic history, even the people of Japan and Tokyo, as the residents of the host country and region, were forced to watch these extraordinary games virtually.

In 2019, the year before the Tokyo 2020 Games were originally slated to occur, Japan hosted Asia's first Rugby World Cup. A priceless legacy from that global sporting event was the memory of the local fans' singing of "Sweet Caroline" in the stadium at halftime together with the 242,000 spectators from abroad, everyone with a beer in each hand.

Of course, no such legacy will exist after the spectator-less Olympic and Paralympic Games held in "extraordinary times." Incidentally, since Japan promised a "compact Olympics" at the time of the bid, the infrastructural legacies that will remain are also all too modest, unlike those from the 1964 Games that can still be seen today, such as the Komazawa Olympic Park and Yoyogi Gymnasium, as well as the Metropolitan Expressway, the Tokyo Monorail, and the Tokaido Shinkansen.

So, should one conclude that there is no legacy to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games, which wrapped up on September 5?

The event went ahead despite the virus's rapid spread, and public debate practically verged upon a quarrel. On one side were those calling for the Olympics to be canceled to protect lives; on the other were those aiming for a "normal Olympics" in order to fulfill Japan's promise to the world and its athletes. The voices of the country's top officials touting the Olympics as "proof that humanity has defeated the virus" rang hollow in the face of a rapidly increasing number of infections drawing an exponential curve (scientifically, the Olympics were in fact a vector for the disease to spread, so it would be impossible to use them as proof that humanity had defeated it).

However, the fact is that a compromise was achieved in the end (rather than an "all-or-nothing" conclusion), calling for the almost total absence of spectators (though many were surely left unconvinced), and the event did conclude as scheduled on September 5. Couldn't that be described as a legacy? Compromise is not necessarily a bad thing.

Japan and Tokyo should be prouder of having hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the best way possible while suffering through the pandemic. One wonders what Istanbul would have done had it won the bid—which it fought for until the very end in 2013—and had to decide whether to host or cancel the event amidst the pandemic, and whether it could have made such a last-minute decision as did Japan and Tokyo, caught as they were between providing medical care to combat the disease and sport for a society much in need of it, all while being mindful of those wracked with pangs of conscience.

The people of Japan had originally hoped that the Tokyo 2020 Games would bring about some sort of change to the country and its capital, particularly after the many years of economic stagnation. In that sense, the Tokyo 2020 Games were supposed to become the "Showa 96 Games," that is, a re-creation of the Olympics held in Showa 39 (1964) that helped drive the postwar reconstruction. But COVID-19 changed all that. It was not the Olympics that saved Japan and Tokyo: rather, Japan and Tokyo saved the Olympics and Paralympics.

There is no tangible legacy. While the "sweet" legacies left behind by the Games are priceless—such as the increasing recognition of skateboarding as a sport with much love and the unprecedented numbers of people viewing the Paralympic competitions—they are unfortunately nothing more than "virtual" memories. Nevertheless, the fact that Japan and Tokyo were able to pull off such a difficult Olympic Games will endure as a long and powerful memory. The world, too, will surely never forget that.

Nagaoka Yoshihiro

Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek Japan. Born in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1969, Nagaoka graduated with a degree in the Chinese language from the Osaka University of Foreign Studies in 1991 (now the Osaka University School of Foreign Studies). He began working at The Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd. the same year (assigned to the headquarters in Osaka). He reported on incidents, government, and elections, covering the giant earthquake of January 17, 1995 (the Great Hanshin Earthquake) from the Kobe bureau. From 2002 to 2003, Nagaoka studied at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China (Beijing). He has worked for Newsweek Japan since 2006, serving as a deputy editor from 2010 to 2017, and editor-in-chief since July 2017. Nagaoka makes extensive media appearances as a commentator.
Translated by Amitt