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What the Pandemic Olympic Village reveals about Japan’s preparedness


Pillow adjoining, commemorative condoms, and plumbing-based digging of the former host nations: By last Sunday evening, a month before the curtain closed, the pre-Olympic Tokyo 2020 stories were already writing themselves.

The creator of the narrative was, on this occasion, an Olympic press tour inside the Olympic Village. This sprawl of buildings in Tokyo Bay will eventually become coveted waterfront condos, but it seems immediately set to be the backdrop to a grim newscast later this summer that begins: “Outbreak traced to a gladiators’ sauna . . . ”

The main objective of the village tour, which focused on the various measures put in place to limit infection and test its spread daily, was to allay precisely this type of anxiety. The pillows on the cardboard beds in the (fairly small) common athletes’ rooms will now be placed on opposite sides in an effort to reduce the risk of transmission.

The fears, though, refuse to back down: Last week’s positive test for a delta variant in an incoming Ugandan team member, and the decision to allow the rest of the team to travel to the host city in central Japan, is a tough one. A dirty look at what the state wanted at this point.

Theoretically, the Tokyo 2020 Village Bubble won’t host, as in previous Olympics, a sparkling festival of global co-mingling, but instead, through strict rules, Perspex screens, and clever canteen-made crowd-tracking software, will now serve the primary purpose of setting this scene All behind us without a medical catastrophe. The games slogan “United by Passion” looms large in giant letters behind the village square, but unsettling obedience rather than sporting a splendid sport may be the unifying emotion that organizers secretly yearn for.

It may well be. The experts have repeatedly warned Against holding these Games, using terms that leave Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration, Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee an absolute burden to prove those warnings wrong.

The decision to hold the Games this summer required a mixture of coercion, optimism, illusion and political betting, all of which was easily mobilized. All the subsequent distortions and paradoxes – some absurd, others potentially life-threatening – are necessary to mask how far we have progressed into the perilous unknown. If the new “rules of the game” rules forbid athletes from shopping and dining outside the village, for example, why should organizers go to such lengths to outfit it with a full-staffed changing desk?

The condom mystery arose during the tour as organizers were pressured over a complex policy issue. The previous announcement of the distribution of tens of thousands of condoms to the villagers contradicted fierce incitement not to close contact between the athletes. The temporary solution—distributed but not used—was mocked, but, in a triumphal display of force, the decision to distribute them at the staging post as educational envoys of latex from Japan to the world was then announced.

Later in the week, a similarly insane series of political churches focused on distributing alcohol at event venues: selling conceptually dim booze between on and off as organizers grappled with the balance between public opinion, the deadly virus and sponsorship obligations.

But in an important sense, the village tour was enlightening. There are many factors behind Japan’s determination to move forward with the Olympic Games. Suga’s political calculations highlight, as does the natural disgust at letting all that preparation and spending go to waste.

But also important is the scenario the organizers seem to be writing in their heads: a agonizing cinematic chaos of hard-line decisions in which Japan has managed to pull off the “miracle” games and remember them as the field in which they took the world. Determine the position of normal life.

“Unlike some of the other hosts, everything here is completely ready,” said one of the officials who led the village tour. “Athletes are guaranteed hot water as soon as they arrive.”

This comment, and others like it, comfortably predate the pandemic, echoing the instincts that surrounded the 1964 Games in Japan, and suggesting a continuing desire to establish the world’s advanced nation’s standing even though that is not really in question. The double challenge of having hot water in the village and overcoming a dangerous virus may be a stronger stimulus than many expected.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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