How bad has it become for the Tokyo Olympics? Even Canada is having a pop at them.
This international brick came from Eugène Lapierre. He runs the Montreal end of what is now called the National Bank Open tennis tournament.
Speaking to the tournament’s website, Lapierre announced that he’d had taken a close look at the situation and decided his production is better than Tokyo’s.
“We have to conclude that the pandemic edition of the Olympics doesn’t do justice to the event, in which all athletes should be proud to compete,” he is quoted as saying.
That’s not a poke in the eye. That’s a full gouge and pull.
Is this hyperbolic? Of course. But hyping his show is Lapierre’s job.
What’s notable is that he felt safe in saying it. Had he tried this with London or Rio in past Games, someone would have asked to take his temperature. Clearly, a person who would claim such a thing – that some podunk Canadian event is supra-Olympic – must need a little lie down.
But not in this instance. Not with this Games.
We’re five days in, and while sports have done their job obscuring Tokyo’s organizational problems, they have not been able to change the main storyline. That this Olympics is a dud. Its dudness cannot be mitigated. Despite her superpowers, Simone Biles cannot save it. The duditude is locked in.
It was always going to be a dud on the streets because the only people in this city who are excited for it draw either a paycheque or volunteer course credit from the Tokyo Organizing Committee.
Thirty-four million people live in Tokyo. But sometimes you’ll be looking out the window of one of our official media plague buses and you’ll think it doesn’t look all that different from downtown Cleveland.
Sure, it’s denser, cleaner and more like The Matrix. But like Cleveland, it’s another place where no one walks around outside.
It’s also a dud on TV. That’s the only audience that actually matters. A professional game of team sports can work without a crowd because everyone watching is fully invested in the outcome. They already know who’s who and what’s going on. They don’t need cheering, moaning or booing to orient themselves in the performance.
It doesn’t work the same way with an Olympics, where the atmosphere often is the point.
You’ll find yourself watching something you don’t understand – say, judo – and there’s no one there. Maybe a few sullen, thickset guys in the stands, which makes it look more like a public hanging.
There’s no soundtrack to tell you when the suspense is ratcheting up. When something happens, you have no idea why or whether it matters. You may as well be watching two guys try to rip each other’s lapels off on the subway.
You can still watch the Olympics as pure jingoism or because you are particularly obsessed with canoe-kayak, but you can’t watch it as general entertainment. Without an audience – the visual cue that someone thinks this is cool – it’s too rinky-dink for that.
It goes without saying that no one should play host to an Olympics, in the same way no one should hold someone else’s wedding in your house. No friendship, no matter how beautiful and special, is worth that much hassle.
Given the cost, there are only two reasons to put your hand up to hold this party – internal communication or external PR.
You’re either telling your own people how great they (and by extension, you) are – à la Sochi and London – or advertising your country to tourists and investors – à la Rio and Pyeongchang.
“We are amazing.” That’s the message. In a perfect world – Barcelona 1992, Lillehammer 1994, Vancouver 2010 – everyone receives it.
Even a so-so Olympics hits one target group.
But it’s hard to think of another Games that has failed so miserably to impress someone, anyone as Tokyo has. This level of across-the-board alienation is impressive.
Is that entirely their fault? No. Does that change the facts on the ground? Also, no.
Of all the mistakes they’ve made – say, telling porky pies about their “ideal climate” during Tokyo’s surface-of-the-sun-adjacent summer – the worst was inviting journalists.
How did they not see that rake as they were stepping on it? Just cry COVID-19 and shut them out. Let your broadcast partners do the on-the-ground agitprop on your behalf. It wouldn’t have been good, but it might’ve been okay.
Instead, you’ve invited several thousand world-class complainers into your midst with cameras and notebooks. You’ve bottled them up, dried them out and left them wondering why there is no bus to baseball.
Anyone with sense could have told you how that would turn out – the press has turned on Tokyo like rabid dogs and started chewing off its arm. No amount of free backpacks will deter them. They are on a mission of destruction.
Tokyo isn’t losing the information war. They’ve lost it. All they can hope for now is a scandal-free retreat. That way they can claim a half-hearted victory, and hope the world grows bored of slapping their Olympics around like a vaudeville act.
Every host lives in anticipation of how their Games will be described in the International Olympic Committee president’s speech at the closing ceremony.
Former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch – the one whose personality most closely resembled a real human’s – liked to drop a “best ever” on every Games. It became such a commonplace, “best ever” was no longer appreciated, but required. Then Atlanta happened.
Atlanta in 1996 is the worst Olympics in history (and I’m counting Rome 65 AD, the one where Nero fell off his horse and still won gold in the chariot race).
Atlanta was the Coca-Cola Games; the terror Games; the where’s-the-bus Games. In retrospect, it was also the canary-in-the-coal-mine Games. It was the one that warned prospective hosts not to think of the Olympics as a headache-free, click-and-play cash machine. Despite best intentions, it could still go very wrong. Tokyo is learning that lesson as we speak.
“Well done, Atlanta,” was the best Samaranch would do them once it was over.
Tokyo can still pull this bus into the station without further incident. Relaxing a little would help. Don’t try so hard to stage-manage the reception. There’s not much point any more. The idea that this is a stinker Olympics is already fixed in the global mind.
Instead, focus on what you can control in the time remaining: Don’t be Atlanta.