Skip to main content

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks near the Olympic rings floating in the water in the Odaiba on Feb. 18, 2021, in Tokyo.Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press

Over the course of their pandemic year, major sporting leagues have been kept afloat by two things – money and hypocrisy.

The money is in the TV contracts. The hypocrisy is in everything else.

The executives in charge love holding up their hands whenever the shouting gets too loud and yelling, “Health and safety, people. Remember. It’s all about health and safety.” They use the word “protocol” as though it is a magic spell.

Everyone understands that while what leagues are doing is reasonable from a business perspective, it is neither healthy nor safe to jet a bunch of guys around the continent so they can perform the essential service of skating. We’ve just agreed never to talk about it.

The Tokyo Olympics arrive as an antiseptic cream for that sort of sanctimony. No hypocrisy here. Just a determination to get the thing done at any cost.

This week, the International Olympic Committee said it has an agreement with China to vaccinate every athlete for the coming two Olympics, in Tokyo and Beijing.

Imagine the international howling that news release would have caused three months ago. Nowadays, those of us who were once all “fairness above all things” have heard the story about some guy’s cousin’s girlfriend who got the jab because she happened to be walking by the right Rexall at the moment a lab tech was tossing a box of soon-to-be-expired AstraZeneca in the bin out back.

Fairness isn’t out the window yet, but it’s draped across the sill and more people are pushing every day.

Japan turned down China’s offer. It will go with its original plan: No one needs to be vaccinated to attend the Olympics. No athlete. No coach. No media member. No foreign spectator (which is easy, because there will be no foreign spectators).

All that’s required for entry is a negative test. There will be no quarantine period.

We know what this actually means: “We’re really hoping you’re all vaccinated by July, but we’re not going to insist.”

But for official purposes, the Tokyo organizers are free-wheeling it. Why? Because after a year at this, people in charge have finally got it through their skulls that when you set a health-and-safety benchmark, there is the danger someone will hold you to it.

There will be risks. The only way to fully mitigate them – to do true “health and safety” – is by cancelling the Games. If that’s the choice, Tokyo prefers to take its chances. If you’re willing to do that as well, you’re welcome to come.

The Tokyo Games are doing what no one in sport has done over the past year – talking to people like they’re adults.

The beauty of this approach is that it pre-emptively neuters all the predictable complaints. When someone in the Athletes’ Village tests positive – and someone will – it’s not a scandal. It can be brushed away with, “We all understood the risks.”

It also lowers the bar on all the other unfair expectations that attend any Olympics. That a one-off event involving tens of thousands of moving parts will go off without a single hitch on what is its trial run. That none of those thousands of people involved will say or do anything stupid. That no one will cheat, despite the enormous temptation to do so.

Every Games for the past 30 years has failed this arbitrary perfection test. Remember when Ryan Lochte went rogue at the Rio Games, and that somehow got turned around so that it was Brazil’s fault?

Complaining about the Olympics has become so much a part of the Olympics that it ought to be made an official sport.

The result of all this kvetching has been a steady erosion in the prestige of the Olympic movement. The IOC is now up there with oil companies and La Cosa Nostra on a list of everyone’s least admired businesses.

The IOC gets what it deserves. The malign brilliance of all functioning plutocracies is their ability to persuade a majority of plebs to act as their most vocal defenders. The IOC somehow managed to screw that up as well.

But the Olympics are bigger and more important than the people who run it. The Olympics need help. Tokyo is that help.

This is the first Games since Los Angeles in 1984 that will emerge from existential peril. This is the Games that reminds us we are not owed an Olympics. We are lucky to have one.

This Games will be the first great international event of the COVID-19 era. It won’t be the end of the tunnel, but for some people, maybe a lot of people, it will be the light.

Sports have continued through all of this, but none of them have been anywhere close to the same. Shorn of the pomp, the crowds and the natural noise, the experience of watching pro sports right now feels a lot like turning a camera on a bunch of extremely fit people while they work out at the YMCA. It isn’t a poor substitute. It’s no substitute at all. It’s a completely different thing.

The Olympics don’t need a crowd, because it’s the Olympics. The stakes are more than a bunch of millionaires working to earn back their escrow money.

I suspect these Olympics will hit many viewers like an emotional brick. It will be a disorienting experience, wonderfully so. It can be a reminder of what’s been lost.

If the bar for failure is low, the bar for huge success isn’t much higher. If Tokyo can put on a semi-decent show that manages to get to the end without total disaster, this will be the Olympics that renews the movement.

My hopes for any Olympics are high because there is no greater event to attend. I’ve just about done it all, and nothing comes remotely close. Every one of them feels like living in the middle of history.

But my hopes have never been greater. The Olympics aren’t about sport. Not really. They are about gathering representatives of every tribe on Earth to peacefully celebrate community and the value of our shared experience. It’s humanity’s biennial house party.

How much would you give to visit with all your neighbours right now?

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct