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Japan prepares for an extremely awkward Olympic Games


The Tokyo Olympics start this week, and it looks like being a very different Games to the one I had been picturing this time last year. I expected it to be a great reunion, a worldwide embrace as we came out of confinement. A symbol, via the planet’s fittest and healthiest youngsters, of our victory over the pandemic. But the Olympics have come a fair few months too soon for that, particularly in Japan. It’ll be a Games without fans - and with athletes, directors and journalists moving in uncomfortable bubbles, like offenders out on parole. And with four-fifths of the country against the Olympics even taking place. Not good.

Japan is well behind in the vaccination effort. The reason for this is they had bad experiences with the vaccine against smallpox in the 60s and the MMR shot in the 80s. There’s a double consequence to this: extremely strict procedures for approving vaccines and an unresolved mistrust of them among the Japanese. What’s more, Japan has managed to control the effects of the virus pretty well up to now, by isolating itself from foreign arrivals, showing general prudence and leaning on a good health service, so they see these Olympics as an infectious invasion that should have been avoided at all costs. If the country's government pressed ahead, it’s because otherwise it’d have been hit with huge compensation expenses.

These Olympics are going to be very different to the '64 Games

What a contrast to the 1964 Games, when Japan opened up to show its new self to the world following the disaster of the war! Visitors were welcomed to a Tokyo filled with freshly-built skyscrapers, eight large motorways and an elevated monorail from the airport to the centre. A city from the future, people said as they arrived. The friendliness of the locals became the stuff of legend. We witnessed some great names at the ’64 Games: Don Schollander, Bob Hayes, Anton Geesink, Abebe Bikila, who repeated his triumph in Rome, Larisa Latynina, who retired afterwards with nine gold medals from three Olympics… Above all, though, we witnessed a happy, reborn Japan. I fear it’ll be very different this time around.