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Tokyo: On the night the 2000 Olympics closed, Sydney couldn’t have been happier. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympic supremo who’d famously mangled the city’s name when giving it the Games, declared them the best ever and a great rollicking party, like New Year’s Eve without the aggro, kicked on into the morning. We were so proud to have pulled it off, so damned chuffed.
As the Tokyo Games come to a close, we couldn’t have asked for more. Not from the host city, not from the people of Tokyo and not from the Australian team. Australia has never won more gold medals at an Olympics and the story behind every one, along with those of so many athletes who didn’t win, were a blessed escape from the tedium of lockdown. You didn’t need to love sport to love these Games.
Sent hearts racing: Mathew Belcher and Will Ryan won gold in sailing while Peter Bol came fourth in the 800m.Credit:Getty Images, AP
Susie O’Neill, one of the stars of the Sydney Games and a deputy chef de mission with the Australian team in Tokyo, says our athletes felt this too. She says the Australian team environment in Tokyo was like nothing she experienced during her swimming career. Where at most Olympics athletes tend to hang out with people they know from their own sports and leave the village to spend time with family and friends, the unique circumstances of Tokyo brought them together and kept them together in a way that fostered a vibrant team culture.
On any given day at Australian Team HQ you’d see Harry Garside shadow-boxing and bouncing around the village, the impossibly long legs of the Boomers stretched out from their chairs in front of the TV in the common area, BMX riders tearing around the place and Keegan Palmer and his skater mates wearing the same team uniform but oh so differently. Athletes who came to these Olympics not knowing what to expect and whether the Games would even go ahead are returning home with something more cherished than a medal around their necks.
“I remember hopping on the charter plane on the way over and athletes saying to me ‘I can’t believe it is actually happening’,” O’Neill says. “Right up until the last minute there was a feeling that it might be cancelled, the rug might be pulled out from under their feet.
“When everyone got over there, they were in a different mindset to past Olympics. The feeling was nothing like a team I have ever been on. For such a big team to all come together and support each other and with the camaraderie, I couldn’t imagine an athlete having a bad experience in that environment.”
Susie O’Neill, deputy chef de mission of Australian Olympic Committee, at a press conference in Tokyo on Monday.Credit:Getty Images
For the city of Tokyo and its people, the mood is different.
Outside the historic fish market on what would normally be a busy Friday morning, third-generation omelette master Matsue Kunio says business was as bad as crab meat left under the Tokyo sun.
“There are no foreign tourists and there are no Japanese tourists as well,” he says.
His family has been selling deep-fried omelettes for 80 years from the same corner and he estimates that takings during the Games have been down 90 per cent.
Matsue Kunio at his family’s store in the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo.Credit:Viola Kam
His best customers are the bus drivers who have filled up the old fish market next door. They have no passengers but they get paid to sit at the bus station regardless, waiting for an Olympic passenger who will never come. “If the government has money to waste on the Olympics, then why can’t they give any more to us?,” he asks.
Sushi store owner Ijima Hiroyuki says his revenue had also fallen to 10 per cent of its usual level and the store was struggling to stay afloat. He is happy for the athletes who were able to compete but worried about the looming public health crisis the city is facing. “I don’t know if they should have gone ahead,” he says.
The performance of the Japanese team at these Games, like Australia’s, has been spectacular. Within the first week of competition the host nation had surpassed its previous record for gold medals won and now sits third on the medal tally below the world’s superpowers, the US and China.
Japanese people were unable to go to the Games but they fell in love with Momiji Nishiya, the 13-year-old girl who carved up the world’s best at the skateboard park, cheered themselves hoarse through the judo and wrestling and watched their athletes fence, box, flip and swim their way to gold.
There is pride here, in what Tokyo 2020 organisers have been able to do in the most challenging circumstances in which a modern Olympics has ever been hosted, and the gracious face Games volunteers have shown to the world. It is a minor miracle – and a testament to the impact of daily screening tests – that these Games are nearly at their end without a large-scale COVID outbreak in the Olympic village. Japan has kept its word and honoured an obligation it entered into years before the first case of a novel coronavirus was detected in Wuhan.
Daku Nishiyama, barbershop owner at Dojo Tokyo said before the Games that the government seemed to be prioritising the even over the health of the people.Credit:Christopher Jue
For Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshiro Muto it is cause for quiet satisfaction rather than elation. As he said at a press conference this week in his typically flat, bureaucratic tone: “We believe that we have been able to deal with incidents at an expected level.”
Sitting next to him, the IOC’s Christophe Dubi could barely stay in his chair. “Has sport ever looked so good?” he declared. “I say the bar has been set extremely high, Toshiro, with you and your team. You have done a marvellous job.”
Beyond the Olympic bubble there is palpable relief that this caravan is moving on and foreboding about what Japan will be left to deal with after the world has gone home.
On Thursday, 5042 COVID cases were recorded in Tokyo for the previous 24 hours; the most in a single day since the pandemic began.
An expert panel advising the Suga government’s COVID response warned an “unprecedented and explosive spread of novel coronavirus is now underway in the capital” and predicted that by August 18, Tokyo would record 10,000 cases a day.
“That would mean that one out of every 1000 Tokyo residents was infected,” says panel member Norio Omagari, director of the National Disease Control and Prevention Centre. “There is a need to share a sense of crisis about what the current reality is like.”
About 80 per cent of all new infections are the Delta variant.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga repeatedly promised in the lead-up to the Games that hosting the Olympics in the middle of pandemic would not jeopardise the health of the Japanese people. Opposition leader Yukio Edano, in an interview with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, says the government has mishandled the Olympics and the COVID-19 crisis. He says 22 gold medals are not enough to compensate for the risk to public health Japan faces as a consequence.
“The coronavirus countermeasures have been an utter failure and the reality is, we are facing this rapid surge during the Olympics,” he says. “I would say that there have been a lot of painful lessons learnt.” His comments suggest that two months from now, when Japan holds its general election, the final verdict on these Games will be delivered at the ballot box.
Suga, with approval ratings in the 30s, has staked his political future on the Olympics. This week he denied there was any link between the Games and Tokyo’s rising COVID numbers but admitted the pandemic had “entered a new phase”, announcing significant changes to Japan’s response.
Yukio Edano, Japan’s opposition leader, right, during an interview in Tokyo this week.Credit:Din Eugenio
Where, throughout the pandemic, all COVID cases were treated in hospitals or isolated in designated hotels, anyone without severe symptoms will now need to isolate at home. The goal is to reduce the pressure on the country’s hospital system. It will also abandon what, to this point, has been an effective preventative medicine strategy of treating mild cases in hospital or hotel settings to stop them from developing into severe cases.
In an attempt to boost the nation’s flagging vaccination rate, AstraZeneca vaccines, shelved since March due to rare clotting concerns, will be made widely available. A state of emergency covering Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures and Okinawa has been extended to the end of the summer. Eight more prefectures will join them from Sunday.
What effect this will have is questionable. Edano says the emergency measures – which rely largely on voluntary compliance – have become meaningless as people fill bars and restaurants in defiance of government requests to stay at home. “The people are no longer responding to or accommodating the request of the government.”
After the glow of the Games, Japan is heading into its darkest days of the pandemic. What part, if any, has the Olympics played in this?
Professor Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist and infectious disease expert and adviser to the Suga government on COVID-19, spoke to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald about this near the start and the end of these Games. He says the dramatic spike in cases can be traced back to a four-day long weekend the Suga government gazetted to coincide with the opening ceremony. There is another long weekend in Japan this weekend to mark the closing.
Oshitani says that every major wave of infections here has been triggered by a holiday. People in Japan don’t get many holidays and make the most of those they have. The Olympics have been bookended by two such super-spreading events.
After the Games, the country will head into Obon, a “golden week” of public holidays traditionally observed by people going home to visit their parents and grandparents. Public health authorities won’t be celebrating. They know that people living in Tokyo, the epicentre of the country’s current wave, are about to take the virus with them to other prefectures.
Oshitani doesn’t believe visiting athletes and officials contributed to the spread of the virus. But he is convinced that by staging the Olympics, the government undercut its public health message for people to stay at home. “If you go to busy nightlife areas you can see many restaurants and bars open and people are drinking beers and wine and so on,” he says. “We are seeing a big festival. It is difficult to persuade people to change their behaviour.
Tsukiji Outer Market in Tokyo on Friday. Credit:Viola Kam
“For some time, we are going to have a very difficult situation.”
Susumu Morita, the general secretary of the Japanese Medical Workers’ Union, is more blunt. He fears the health system in Tokyo is already on the brink of collapse.
“The limit has already been reached,” he says. “The Olympics legacy will be triggering an outbreak, diminishing public attention to the spread of infectious diseases and indirectly leading to the deprivation of lives that could have been saved.”
You won’t hear these voices on your TV as part of Seven’s blockbuster Olympic coverage and that is fair enough. If you are enduring Sydney’s protracted lockdown, or in Melbourne bouncing in and out of restrictions faster than Rohan Browning gets out of the blocks, if you are sweating on case numbers in Brisbane or simply living between lockdowns in another city, these Games have provided a glorious two-week interlude to the drudgery and dread of the pandemic.
These Olympics will always belong to the surging stroke of Ariarne Titmus, the laidback cool of Palmer,
Peter Bol’s inspired two laps of the Olympic stadium and the seven medals draped around the neck of one swimmer, Emma McKeon. Susie O’Neill says it is hard to imagine that on the eve of these Games she was reading newspaper comments describing Australia’s athletes as indulged and questioning whether we should even be sending a team to Tokyo.
“Just imagine if it didn’t go on? We would have never seen Arnie [Titmus], we would have never seen Emma McKeon, we would have never had all these results. Imagine how many kids are inspired now, just to get active.”
Australians who found some joy in watching it all unfold should thank our athletes. They should also thank the Japanese people. The cost to them may be severe.
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