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The Olympics, an Emblem of Global Togetherness, Had to Be Put on Hold

The postponement of the Tokyo Summer Games is a reminder that amid a global pandemic, the best display of human connectedness comes from a lot of earnest, caring, difficult isolation

Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, after weeks of furious speculation, the biggest remaining question about the coronavirus-decimated 2020 sports calendar was finally answered. Japan and the International Olympic Committee formally acknowledged what the rest of us already knew: that the Summer Olympics, scheduled to start July 24 in Tokyo, could not go forward in the middle of a global pandemic. The Games have now been postponed—tentatively, I guess, in the way that all dates are tentative now—till “the summer of 2021 at the latest,” according to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since it seems unlikely that the IOC will just up and hold the Summer Olympics in February, the general assumption is that the delay will be for about a year from the original start date.

It goes almost without saying, given the current COVID-19 crisis, that this is the right decision. If you asked people around the world to name an event whose purpose is to “bring people together,” the Olympics would almost certainly be the one most chosen; you cannot stage that event at a moment when convincing people not to be together is the key to saving millions of lives. Any credit the Olympic bureaucracy might gain for making the correct call, however, has to be balanced against their having waited for such a disturbingly long time to make it. For weeks, the IOC and Japanese organizers have clung to a posture of increasingly untenable optimism, insisting that all this coronavirus trouble might be well in hand by July. For weeks, they refused to postpone the Games even as a growing contingent of national federations and teams—including both USA Swimming and USA Track & Field—publicly begged them to.

The urgency, from the teams’ perspective, involved more than the question of whether the virus might or might not be contained by July; it was also about the fact that, for Olympic contenders, preparation for the Games had to be in full swing now. Training, holding qualifying events, and advance travel were all rendered essentially impossible by the social-distancing and shelter-in-place directives that structure social life in much of the world at the moment; how do you hold a water polo practice without creating a massive vector for the virus? But until very recently, the IOC continued to act as if the only salient question was where the global caseload might stand on July 24.

This has been, to put it mildly, squirm-inducing to watch. Given everything we know about the history of Olympic corruption and the runaway commercialization of the Games, it was hard not to suspect the organizers of being more interested in their revenue stream than in the well-being of the athletes they’re supposed to serve. (The Olympics’ gargantuan broadcast contracts pay out after the conclusion of the Games.) But as has always been its wont, the IOC was giddily willing to frame its motives in the form of saccharine sports cliché and utopian mission statements, even where these made no sense. “As successful athletes, you know that we should never give up, even if the chance to succeed appears to be very small,” IOC president Thomas Bach wrote in an open letter to Olympic athletes on Sunday, as if responding inadequately to a pandemic were the same as digging deep for the anchor leg of a relay. “Our commitment to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is based on this experience.”

There’s no doubt that postponing the Olympics will be a logistical nightmare. As Bach pointed out in his letter, the Games are not like other sporting events that have already been put on hold, such as Euro 2020 or the NBA season. Those competitions take place largely within an existing infrastructure, in stadiums that have already been built; the Olympics are more like the World Cup, constructed from the ground up for each new iteration of the Games. The postponement means contending with an unimaginable snarl of missed hotel commitments and canceled flights (though not more than the near-total shutdown of the world tourist economy has already produced). But it also means dealing with the fallout of building a temporary city and then not turning up to live in it. The Olympic village has a staff. What happens to them? The Tokyo Olympics involved the construction of no fewer than eight new stadiums, and at least one of them is supposed to be converted into an apartment block after this summer. What happens to its future tenants? To its investors?

If the current crisis has made anything clear, it’s that what the world needs right now is not new sports arenas, and so you might think that the surreal logistical complexity of delaying the Games would be an argument against the Olympics in their current form. What’s the point of all this excess, if it only makes it harder for the IOC to look out for its athletes and fans? The costs of staging the Olympics already tend to fall disproportionately on vulnerable people; only now, when everyone in the world has become a vulnerable person, did the IOC pause to consider its approach. Maddeningly, though, the IOC went the other way, implying for weeks that the bloated scale of the modern Olympics was a reason to carry on with them. Both Bach’s letter and official IOC statements on Tuesday have cited the “millions of nights already booked in hotels” among other examples of the planning complexity that made delay more undesirable for this sporting event than for the dozens of others that had already done the right thing.

Now that the Olympics are officially postponed, though, I find myself feeling weirdly sad about their absence. Partly that’s for the sake of the athletes, many of whom have been working for four years with the goal of peaking in 2020; delaying the Games by a year will change the course of many of their careers. And partly it’s because the Olympics—again like the World Cup—are often delightful to watch in a way that’s totally out of keeping with the crassness of their organizing body and associated marketing streams. One of the tragedies of the Games having become so sanctimonious and venal is that “let’s get a ton of great athletes from all the countries in the world together and make them do all their sports at the same time” remains an unimpeachably excellent concept for a sporting event.

But mostly, I think, I feel sad because in our current context of enforced disconnection, even the sham version of what the Olympics represent seems like a fairly appealing alternative. If we can’t have actual togetherness, and we can’t have a genuine emblem of the idea of togetherness, don’t we at least deserve a cheap, cynical simulation of an emblem of the idea of togetherness? Like, to yell at, if nothing else? Surely the truest sign of our common humanity, the deep bond uniting us all despite nation and creed, is our ability to feel vaguely creeped out by the Olympic flame. The IOC has declared that it will remain lit in Tokyo during the delay, as a beacon to the world, a “light at the end of the tunnel,” as they put it.

On the other hand, the pandemic has offered us a reminder of something else, something down there under the MasterCard receipts at the core of the Olympic ideal. It’s offered us a reminder that human connectedness depends on something deeper than physical proximity. At this moment, a festival of easy sentiment and feigned togetherness can’t do more for human unity than a lot of earnest, caring, difficult keeping apart.