Shortly before the beginning of the most perfunctory Olympics opening ceremony in memory, an official came up to the desk we were sitting at.
“How is your table working?” she said.
“Actually, the WiFi doesn’t seem to be working.”
“The WiFi, we have a problem,” she said. The problem being that it had imploded and would never recover. “And we’re fixing it. But your table?”
She banged the table in order to make clear that she wasn’t speaking figuratively about the bunch of us sitting along a row of desks, but addressing the table itself. The piece of pressboard we had our elbows on. How was that functioning?
“The table is great.”
“Good,” she said.
Then she rushed off, presumably to gather more furniture feedback.
No one can or should care about the problems of journalists, but that exchange gives you some sense of the vibe of this thing in the very early going. Same planet, different worlds.
Tokyo was meant to be the Olympics that set a new standard for the event. The Olympics of the future, today. Arms linked across the globe, friendship born out of sport and strong, fully operational WiFi.
What you’re getting instead is the impression that you’ve shown up at a party Tokyo really, really wishes you hadn’t RSVPed to. Seriously, the organizers thought you’d have the sense to stay home. Fine, okay, they’ll put out some food. But you’ll have to eat in the garage. And then take your garbage with you.
This is not to say the welcome has been cold. It hasn’t. But you can’t help but notice that the only people you’re hearing from and seeing are in the employ of Tokyo 2020. Everyone else is AWOL. The streets are empty. The atmosphere is non-existent. Athens, simply by being Athens, is more Olympic right now than Tokyo.
The overall impression is not so much that of a reluctant host, but an embarrassed one. When the city won the rights to this thing eight years ago, organizers were full of plans. But events have conspired to turn Tokyo’s Olympics into a political and logistical disaster.
In response, and as the scandals pile up, the hosts appear to be turtling. Friday night’s opening ceremony was a further tuck into that protective crouch.
It had the usual stuff: fireworks, speeches, science fiction costumery, peyote-inspired graphics, a lone protagonist becomes a cast of hundreds, choreography out of Cats, a history lesson, a couple of celebrities, balloon pants, soft lighting, monochrome transitions and a lot of grandstanding about environmentalism in the midst of an event everyone flies to.
But the cumulative effect was not usual. It was reticent, verging on mortified. Even the musical numbers were downbeat and forlorn.
There’s a grand tradition of lavish shows no one wants to see, but this may have been a first – one the producers apparently did not want to stage.
Obviously, the public had been barred from the event, owing to COVID-19 fears. Instead, thousands of people quietly jammed the sidewalks and streets across from the Olympic Stadium. Whether it was to participate by proximity or to disapprove from up close was hard to say.
During all the quiet beats in the show – say, when the stadium darkened and the spotlight fell onto a single person – the chanting of a small crowd of protesters outside could be clearly heard.
The good news was that they didn’t have much to interrupt. The “show” portion of the show lasted just 37 minutes. Somehow, it still managed to feel like 37 hours. By contrast, London 2012′s epic opener was more than twice as long.
I get it. Tokyo’s organizers don’t want to provide their critics – most of the rest of the city – with any ammo. But this opening ceremony was obviously the haphazardly edited version of a longer, and probably better, show.
When the athletes suddenly began to emerge on their march into the stadium, the first thought that leapt to mind was, “That’s it?”
One purpose of the lavish opener is to keep people jazzed through the endless procession of participants. There’s only so many different ways to wave a flag and only one sexy, shirtless guy from Vanuatu. It’s not a lot to hang two hours of airtime on.
By the time Canada came in, about halfway through, you were stultified, and not just because Tokyo in July may be the hottest place in the solar system. That includes the surface of Mercury.
Our national contingent was paltry – just 30 of 370 total athletes set to compete in Japan. Uzbekistan had more. The Canadians did their best to look excited, but it wasn’t that sort of party.
As they arrived, cameras swung up to IOC bad boy Dick Pound. He was part of the “audience” of VIPs, about 1,000 of them. Mr. Pound, looking bedraggled in a rumpled suit, stood and clapped.
Every time a new country was announced, they’d do the same thing – pick out some prince or prime minister who was part of the small cadre of elites who scored an invitation and then broadcast him or her. I’m no theatre critic, but it may not have set the sort of Up With People tone they were looking for.
As Japan was announced in the traditional final spot, the silence was so discordant the journalists on hand began to clap, just to fill up the absence of what should have been.
It ended far more hopefully than it began – a giant Earth floating above the stadium while a multicultural collection of easy-listening stars virtually sang Imagine. Nice, but three hours in is a bit late to change direction.
“Finally, we are all here together,” IOC president Thomas Bach said during an endless speech that veered from maudlin to self-congratulatory. It was the perfect capper to a weird evening.
Mr. Bach is technically right. Everybody’s here together in Japan. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s connecting.
If Friday night and the days that preceded it are any indication, connection is a bar that may be too high for this Olympics.
Right now, it feels as if the people in charge would settle for getting through it and then forgetting it happened.
Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.