The protests were never huge, but they seemed to be omnipresent. Groups of placard holders could be seen in front of train stations, at torch relay events, wherever there were crowds.
Their protests are symbolic of the seriousness with which people in Japan are taking the COVID-19 virus and its variants.
The climbing infection rates in Tokyo on the eve of the Games are like darkening clouds over the city. After a visit on Thursday, July 22, to the Tokyo Bay Ariake area where so many of the Olympic arenas are located, you might think the Games had already ended, there were so few people, and so little energy.
However, if on the afternoon of Friday, July 23 you visited Harajuku, minutes away from the National Stadium, you would have heard the constant buzz of a beehive in anticipation. Around 12:45 pm, thousands of people congested the intersection in front of Meiji Shrine, waiting in the hot sun for the roar of jet engines.
And suddenly, they were rewarded as the Air Self Defense Force air acrobat team called the Blue Impulse roared overhead. Cameras and phone pointed skyward as the jets formed the Olympic rings in the sky, an act harking back to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
A 15-minute walk takes you to the National Olympic Stadium, where crowds line the street. It’s only 1pm and it may be too early for the arrival of the athletes, but Japanese were happy to see the National Stadium in full regalia, albeit behind fences to keep us out.
And when you get to the Olympic rings in front of the Olympic Museum and across the street from the National Stadium, the need to socially distance was totally forgotten. Anything to get a picture in front of the rings.
Yesterday, in my walk through Ariake, I was worried for the patient. But today, as I walked through the heart of the Tokyo Olympics, I felt a pulse.
When Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s acrobat jet team, The Blue Impulse, flew across that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, Japan ooh-ed and ah-ed.
It was a spectacular moment on a spectacular day as Japan welcomed the world to a country, not bowed and backward, but proud and modern.
Victor Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team, was on the filed during the 1964 Opening Ceremonies. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It stuck in my mind – five jets in the air which drew the Olympic rings. It was magic. It was terrific. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day.”
On July 23rd, a little bit before 1 pm, the organizers hoped to capture that magic again. I made my way to Harajuku, near the entrance to Meiji Shrine. As I got close to the intersection in front of the main train station, the sidewalk got more congested.
The place was packed. People filled the overpasses and the sidewalks, looking upwards, hoping to pick up telltale sounds of approaching jet engines. And then suddenly, there they appeared from the north, five jets in formation. Way up high amidst puffy white clouds and a light blue sky, the jets made a couple of passes. Their third time through, they flew in individually, spewing colored smoke.
In 1964, you could see the rings and their colors clearly. But the clouds seemed to get in the way in the 2021 version. People ooh-ed and ah-ed, but in an uncertain way. I could see the rings formed partially, but I never saw five fully formed rings in the sky.
The crowd applauded, politely.
More importantly, there was a crowd. And they were excited to connect to the spirit and energy of 1964.
Just watch this clip from the movie, “Always – Sunset on Third Street ’64.” This scene captures that moment in Japan perfectly.
As the protagonist in the film clip says, “and now, finally, it’s the Olympics!”
(For better pictures of the 2020 sky writing, go here.)
In 1964, on Saturday, October 10, the Blue Impulse aerobatic jet team that painted the brilliantly blue sky with the Olympic rings on the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, symbolizing then that the sky’s the limit for Japan.
In 2020, on Saturday, March 20, the Blue Impulse team reprised their role from nearly 56 years prior, sketching the five rings in the sky during the ceremony welcoming to Japan the sacred Olympic fire from Greece.
Unfortunately, the rings were immediately washed away by the blustery winds over Matsushima Air base in Miyagi prefecture, symbolizing, perhaps, that our limits are not quite so high.
I watched the officials, athletes and celebrities line up ceremoniously, undoubtedly proud to represent Japan in this extraordinary event. The Olympic flame is scheduled to start a nation-wide relay from Futaba, Fukushima on March 26 and end in Tokyo at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 24, perhaps at that time, showing the world that the Tokyo2020 Games are truly the “Recovery Olympics,” as the organizers have billed them.
But I couldn’t help but imagine that each and every one of them harbored the question, “Will this flame actually ignite the Olympic Cauldron on July 24?”
President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, Tokyo2020 chief, Yoshiro Mori and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among many other officials have said that the Tokyo Olympics are going to take place as scheduled. “The I.O.C. remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” said Bach.
The cool and patient approach of the IOC may be the right approach, but their words are beginning to seem surreal, and increasingly at odds with the heated and urgent voices of athletes and officials around the world.
“Of course the IOC and the whole world wants a successful Olympics. But for that to happen I strongly believe the event needs to be postponed – unless the authorities can guarantee it will be business as usual, which I don’t believe they can,” said Guy Learmonth on March 17, who is competing for a spot on the Great British track team.
“I’m not against the Olympics. But saying that the Olympics will still go on is a big mistake in communication,” said Giovanni Petrucci on March 19, who served as president of the Italian Olympic Committee for 14 years.
“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities. It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year,” wrote USA Swimming CEO, Tim Hinchey, to the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO, Sarah Hirshland, on March 20.
The pressure on the local officials in Japan is immense, and we are seeing fissures in this brave front that the Games must go on. Recently two prominent Japanese voices have spoken up:
Japan is hosting the biggest, most logistically complex big-tent event in the world this year, but decisions regarding cancellation or postponement are made by the IOC. And as long as the IOC takes a wait-and-see approach, waiting to the last possible moment before making such a decision, Japanese officials believe they must do the same.
The decision that has to be made is a thankless one – there will be an outcry whether the Games go on as scheduled, are postponed or cancelled. I have no doubt that the IOC and the Tokyo2020 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee are doing the best they can to make a wise decision.
In the meanwhile, the pressure continues to build, and reality continues to distort.