Eleven days ago, Japan’s Olympic Minister had this to say about the Tokyo Games: “The IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or a postponement – absolutely not at all.”
Things were already going sideways. Anyone with a basic understanding of math knew where we were headed.
But one supposes this was meant to sound resolute – if not to athletes, business partners and fans, then to whichever insurance company has the misfortune to cover the Olympics.
Those sorts of comments, from people up and down the top rungs of the ladder as recently as four days ago, will haunt the Olympic movement. Every time they say anything with assurance from this point on, there will be a little “… not like that time in 2020” appended to the end of it.
Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee finally called it quits on Tuesday. In a joint statement, they announced the Games will be put off until “not later than summer 2021.” Looking at the way the sports calendar shakes out, a best guess would be June of next year.
In a perfectly odd, IOC touch, the release noted that the 2021 Olympics will still be called the “Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”
Which makes absolutely no sense, unless you’ve already printed a kajillion souvenir T-shirts with that on them.
It’s a reminder that this was never about health and safety, resilience or prudence – all ideas pushed out there by the IOC. This was about money, full stop. In the end, all we’ve proved is that the pandemic is so bad, it’s put the world’s greatest capitalists to flight.
(One report suggested that when Japan and the IOC considered stalling the Games until fall, NBC stepped in to slap them down. That would have interfered with the start of football season. Perhaps the World Health Organization would have more influence if it moved its headquarters to midtown Manhattan.)
In this corner of the world, it seems fitting that the Olympics were shuttered on Tuesday. All the other non-essentials would be closing up for the foreseeable future after Tuesday night. Why not sports as well? The Olympics was the last major holdout.
We’re now months – probably many months – from any sort of games to distract us. You can’t even go to the park and run around with a ball for fear that will lead to high-fiving or fistfights, both of which are potentially contagious.
For the first time in a long time – ever? – we’ve stopped playing with each other.
As one does these days, I spent a hundred highly productive hours on the internet the other day. I drifted aimlessly between videos of people going stir crazy in studio apartments and videos of other people yelling at those people to stay there and suck it up.
Soon, all digital content everywhere will become a script-less, crowd-sourced re-interpretation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
One of the videos I landed on was of a kid – maybe 11 or 12 years old – in full soccer goalkeeper regalia practising alone in a postage-stamp backyard.
He’d pushed a miniature net up against a fence. He’d stand to one side, kick the ball against the fence, then dive into the net to save the rebound.
The video caught traction after former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel retweeted it with this caption: “Nothing, not even an evil virus like the CONVID-19 [sic] should stop a talented goalkeeper from working on getting better. Well done young man.”
First off, I commend this kid for his unusual vigour. One of the side-effects of this situation is that it’s given many of us an excuse to put off that get-fit-quick plan we’ve been on the verge of launching any day now for the past 10 years. For the foreseeable future, nobody needs you showing up in an ER with a slipped disc.
So never before in history have so many been so lazy for the sake of the common good. We salute you.
Second, this is a lovely thing of Schmeichel to have done. In goalkeeper terms, this kid has received a blessing from the pope. My own equivalent would be getting a note from beyond the grave from Richard Yates: “Keep trying, dipstick. And stop using so many commas.”
But it misses the point of sport.
Sport isn’t about individual improvement or fighting “evil” (an epistemological road you probably don’t want to head down). It’s about getting people together. It is a community activity, perhaps the most pervasive one.
If the point were pure athleticism, more of us would go to parks on our own to run up and down really fast. A few of us do do such things, but in order that, some day, they may do them in front of a crowd.
Sport outside a group isn’t sport. It’s exercise.
So until further notice, none of us are sportsmen or women any more. We are a nation of exercisers. You are now no different than Connor McDavid.
Despite its levelling effects, exercise is not fun. Even if you like exercising, you like it in the same way you like steel-cut oats or going to the dentist. Because it is good for you and you know you should do it.
Upon being asked what they’re going to do on their week off, no one has ever said, “Not much. Just gonna kick back and exercise.”
We’ll know sports is back once we can exercise together again, or watch other people who are gifted exercisers do it on TV for money.
Presumably, we’ll have sports again before they stage the next Olympics. But right now, that’s my finish line. That’s when I’ll know things have returned to normal (or whatever normal has changed into once this is over).
The IOC, clumsy and grasping as it is, has accepted this reality grudgingly.
It may still think of the next Olympics as a money-losing, make-up show shoehorned into the summer schedule. But I think it is going to be something far more than that, something that marks the beginning of the new.