The Power of Sport Uniting the World in the Face of Hardship

[CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE] How the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics promoted gender diversity and cybersecurity while overcoming adversity. Bill Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The Economist and someone with an intimate knowledge of Japan, describes the three legacies of Tokyo 2020.
Photo: Kyodo News

Amid the lows and highs of this coronavirus pandemic so far, competitive, professional, world-class sport has been one of the things that have succeeded in raising our spirits, have allowed us to escape our daily cares and concerns, and have united us, both within our countries and globally. For that reason, although the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics could not take place in the form that everyone would have wanted, the memory held worldwide of the 2020/21 Summer Games will be an overwhelmingly positive one in the future.

The key question to ask is "what will future historians say about Tokyo 2020, beyond the fact that it took place amid a global pandemic?" It is of course too soon to be sure, but I think we can already see that three main legacies will probably be identified.

The first of those legacies is one that is domestic to Japan: the promotion of gender and racial diversity. This had long been declared by the organisers as being a primary cultural and social goal for the Games, but when such goals are declared few people really pay much attention or take them very seriously. But at the Opening Ceremony on July 23rd when Naomi Osaka emerged as the final bearer of the Olympic torch, it was clearly time to take this goal seriously.

The global tennis star had long been speculated about as a potential final torchbearer; in fact I wrote about this very possibility in my book, "Japan's Far More Female Future", both in the Japanese version published in 2019 by Nikkei and the English one published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. But the secret had been well kept right up to the final moment, which meant that the choice was even more eye-catching and memorable.

Historians will, I imagine, comment that at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the final torchbearer was the highly symbolic choice of Sakai Yoshinori, "Atomic Boy" as he became known, a man who had been born near Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 the day the bomb was dropped. So many will see correspondingly symbolic thinking in the choice of a mixed race female star for that role in 2021: a message was sent both about how Japan wants to be seen internationally and about how it wants its society to develop in the future.

This message also fitted in to the unfortunate event of the misogynistic remarks made by the then President of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, former prime minister Mori Yoshiro. Those remarks showed how far Japan still has to go to achieve goals of gender equality or even diversity, but the strong level of reaction against Mr Mori's remarks, among the public, in the media and in the Diet, indicated that many people are in favour of such progress. The fact that Mr Mori had to resign and was replaced by Hashimoto Seiko, a politician who is not only female but also a former Olympian herself, turned a rather negative event into something that shone a positive light on Japan. That positive light was then made even stronger by the choice of Ms Osaka.

The second legacy consists of a success behind the scenes: the successful prevention of any cybersecurity breaches surrounding the Tokyo Games. Some may argue that this was made easier by the fact that the Games went ahead without spectators, so that one of the big vulnerabilities, the ticketing system, was by necessity made much smaller. But the fact remains that cyber-attacks, whether by hostile states, disruptive hackers or organised criminal groups, have been rising dramatically every year. So the danger faced by a huge event such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games has risen dramatically too.

I suspect that any future historians attempting to trace this growing issue of cybersecurity may well consider Tokyo 2020 as a significant milestone both in the fight against such cyber threats and in the emergence of international collaboration to keep events such as this safe. Tokyo had benefited from lessons from London 2012 and Rio 2016, and now future Games organisers will benefit from Tokyo's own expertise and advice.

The third legacy is not one that any organiser or advocate for Tokyo 2020 will have imagined as being a true legacy. Most such organisers think of reputational legacies, for having organised the Games well and welcomed hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, and infrastructural legacies, in the form of new sports facilities and transport links that were built for the Games. Those infrastructural legacies will certainly be important. But the bigger and truer legacy, which I think future historians will comment upon, is the evidence the Games provided of Japan's ability to mount such a complex and controversial event successfully in a time of adversity.

International audiences will all have been aware of the fact that there was strong public criticism in Japan about the decision to go ahead with the Games even as a wave of Covid infections developed in the country. Many foreign media noted that protests were held outside the national stadium even on the day of the opening ceremony. For domestic political reasons, it must have been quite tempting to cancel the Games altogether.

The fact that that temptation was resisted and that both the national and the Tokyo Metropolitan Governments chose to proceed with the Games, even amid a swirl of pressure, and then held them to considerable acclaim, will be seen by future historians as an impressive feat of determination, even stoicism.

Three legacies: the promotion of gender diversity, a significant success in cybersecurity, and a great achievement at a time of adversity, in both health and politics. These are what Tokyo 2020 will be remembered for, I imagine. And of course the sporting highlights of the Games, but everyone will have their own choices and preferences about that. Historians lift their eyes above such matters, and my feeling is that the record they write will be an overwhelmingly positive one, both for Tokyo and for Japan.

Bill Emmott

A writer and consultant best known for his 13 years as editor in chief of The Economist in 1993-2006, a publication he first joined in 1980 and served in Brussels, Tokyo and London. He is now co-director of the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy; chair of the Japan Society of the UK; chair of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and chair of the board of Trinity College Dublin's Long Room Hub for Arts & Humanities. In 2016 the Japanese Government awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, for services to UK-Japan relations.
He is an honorary fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford and is an Ushioda Fellow of Tokyo College, at the University of Tokyo; in 2017-18 he was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. Bill is the author of 14 books variously on Japan, Asia, the 20th century and Italy, and narrated and co-wrote a documentary film about Italy, "Girlfriend in a Coma" (2013). His most recent books were "The Fate of the West - the battle to save the world's most successful political idea" (2017), and "Japan's Far More Female Future", published by Nikkei in 2019 and Oxford University Press in September 2020.
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