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Grading the Pandemic Olympics: How Tokyo shined

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TOKYO — They were young Japanese soldiers, dressed head to toe in camouflage fatigues that made little sense considering they were standing in an urban parking lot with the midday, mid-summer heat beating down on them.

Their job was to check bags and badges outside the Arike Gymnastics Centre, a bit of security that was almost laughable. There were no fans allowed at these Olympics so the only people trickling in each day were the actual gymnasts, Tokyo 2020 workers and the gymnastics media, none of whom seemingly require a trained military presence.

Yet despite the mundaneness of the task, despite the searing temperatures, despite the dull repetition of security for security sake — hey, someone keep an eye on that 4-foot-7 balance beam finalist! — they kept smiling.

Along the way they learned some words of just about every language that came by in what is essentially humanity’s Noah’s Ark, managing to turn it into a game. They’d playfully shout hello or thank you or something in English or Russian or Romanian or Chinese or whatever.

Assigned a long, lousy, thankless task, they made the most of it.

Without even knowing it, they made these Olympics a perfectly Japanese experience.

When grading how a host city or host country does in staging this monstrosity known as the Summer Olympics, the degree of difficulty must be assigned, like skateboarding or diving. This isn't easy in the best of circumstances.

What about when the spit (test) hits the fan?

Other than the 1948 London Olympics, dubbed the “Austerity Games” because they came just after World War II, what Tokyo dealt with made everything before it look like a grade school field day. This was a balance beam routine except the beam had been doused in kerosene and lit on fire while a couple of hungry alligators settled beneath it.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 25: Japanese volunteers with a sign that says one team for our dreams competing on Women's Road Race during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Fuji International Speedway on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan (Photo by Ronald Hoogendoorn/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
Japanese volunteers with a sign that says one team for our dreams competing on Women's Road Race during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Fuji International Speedway (Ronald Hoogendoorn/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Go ahead with your Suni Lee-inspired aerial combo now.

The Japanese did a tremendous job running these Olympics. Brilliant. Incredible. Impressive. Pick your adjective.

In the midst of a pandemic that won’t quit, dealing with a year’s delay, a lack of public support and rising case numbers here in Tokyo, they managed to pull this off.

“While unique and unprecedented in so many ways, this has been a wonderful Games,” said United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland. “The moments we have witnessed will stand the test of time.”

Every event will be held. Every medal will be handed out. That alone is an astounding accomplishment and one that no one — absolutely no one — could guarantee when the torch was lit … or even a few days ago. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

This was a hold-your-breath operation. Yes, they planned, but no one knew. Yet it worked. The so-called “Olympic Bubble” held for the most part. They tested and tested and traced and cleaned and tested some more.

Inside look at a pandemic Olympics slideshow embed
Inside look at a pandemic Olympics slideshow embed

There were some sporadic positive cases, some athletes who unfortunately got caught up in it, but the disruption to the overall event was minimal. There was no mass outbreak. The integrity of the competition was not compromised.

All over this sprawling, massive city they staged game after game, event after event. They were held in 42 different venues of all different shapes and sizes — a theatre inside a convention center for weight lifting, a massive empty stadium for soccer, a vast field with temporary bleachers for archery.

On the water, in the water, near the water, from the city center to the far suburbs, it didn’t matter. It all worked. The protocols. The security. The logistics.

It’s never easy, with 10,000+ athletes, many living inside their own village, and tens of thousands of additional coaches, officials, executives, media and workers, all speaking different languages, eating different food, expecting different comforts.

With COVID running around? Why try?

Plenty of locals didn’t want them to, didn’t want these Games. Much of that was understandable. There was concern about the spread of the virus when you bring people in from every last corner of the earth. There was the expense — a minimum of $15.4 billion. There was the frustration that their restaurant or bar or shop was dealing with heavy restrictions or closures while this big party was going on elsewhere in town.

The complaints were legit. You walked into a restaurant and you could see desperation in the proprietor's eyes. It was painful.

Japanese volunteers wave for visitors as they wait for their bus in front of the the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 29, 2021, during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP) (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)
Japanese volunteers wave for visitors as they wait for their bus in front of the the Tokyo Aquatics Centre (ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

And no, this was not perfect. The heat was oppressive on some competitions — but it’s the IOC (and its broadcast partners) who demand a late-July start date. Some of the COVID measures were more comical theatre than substance — do the posts on the soccer net really have to be wiped down?

Almost everything else was small though. Or not of their doing (how again did the Russians get in here?).

What was in their control was the attitude and the aptitude. They excelled on both. There were so many workers, so many volunteers, so many cops — all impossibly friendly and eager to help, even as the days dragged on. Two-plus weeks in and they attacked their jobs with the dedication of day one — wiping down tables, helping at crosswalks, offering just a friendly nod as you passed by.

You couldn’t fake the passion. They just wanted it to work for everyone. They just wanted this to work for Japan.

And it did. The Olympics happened. That was the only goal.

Japan didn’t get the Games it wanted. It didn’t get the tourist dollars or the ticket money or the packed entertainment districts. It didn’t get the fun for the locals cheering in the stands.

It didn’t get the pictures splashed across television and social media of a modern, clean, friendly, beautiful metropolis for all the world to see.

It did get something else, though. It did get something significant. It got to show the spirit of their people, of accomplishing a task, of meticulous planning, of efficiency in the face of chaos.

Under the most duress, the Japanese came through. In the toughest of circumstances, they shined.

"We have great admiration for the Organizing Committee and the volunteers who have worked so hard," Hirshland of the USOPC said.

The Pandemic Olympics, inside a partially locked down city, one year overdue, happened.

And the soldiers, even the overheated, overdressed, bored-to-tears, guarding-nothing-but-a-parking-lot soldiers kept smiling and somehow, some way made it fun.

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