Welcome to Tokyo, the 'best-ever prepared' Olympics host, and a city grappling with Covid contradictions

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A small group activists demonstrate outside the hotel where International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach is staying in Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES
A small group activists demonstrate outside the hotel where International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach is staying in Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES

In the searing heat of the midday sun, the Tokyo pavements are throng with workers sheltering under umbrellas for protection. In a few hours, they will pack out every available back-street ramen joint, slurping noodles shoulder to shoulder in the tightest of spaces before the city-wide curfew kicks in at 8pm and everything shuts for the night.

Theirs is a city grappling with contradictions. A place officially under a ‘state of emergency’ where its masked population, weary of restrictions so deep into the pandemic, are allowed to go about their daily business largely as normal.

A city welcoming up to 100,000 foreigners from almost every country in the world at precisely the same time its own Covid cases reach a six-month high. A place where senior medical figures, grappling with vaccine shortages and a worryingly low vaccination rate, implore their government to put an end to the madness of prioritising sport over health.

Welcome to Tokyo: the “best-ever prepared” host in history, according to the head of the International Olympic Committee; or the unfortunate pawn in a game many believe should not be played. The choice is yours.

Why are we here? Why have these Olympics not been cancelled? They were questions asked this week of the organisers, who handily ignored the monumental financial implications without which the plug would have long ago been pulled, instead giving the usual bluster about legacy and host responsibility.

While the official cost of putting on this delayed event is $15.4 billion (£11.2bn), a Japanese government audit suggests the correct figure may be double that. All but $6.7bn (£4.9bn) is public money, so Japan - unable to recoup cash from ticket sales - is desperate to generate any income it can to offset sunk costs.

There are also businesses and stakeholders keen to see a return on their investment, an incumbent Japanese prime minister hoping a successful Olympics will buoy public mood ahead of an upcoming general election, and a country’s pride at stake in being able to throw such an unlikely party at the most inconvenient time.

“It’s a bit like a gambler who already has lost too much,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Pulling out of it now will only confirm the huge losses made, but carrying on you can still cling to the hope of winning big and taking it all back.”

Police officers block a small group of activists as they walk towards the hotel where International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach is staying for a demonstration in Tokyo on July 17, 2021, calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - GETTY IMAGES
Police officers block a small group of activists as they walk towards the hotel where International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach is staying for a demonstration in Tokyo on July 17, 2021, calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - GETTY IMAGES

It seems like something of a forlorn hope. Despite recent surveys showing marginally greater support in Japan than at the start of the year, protests continue and Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto on Saturday admitted that “the Games are not really fully embraced by the public”.

Shut out of the world’s biggest sporting show on their own doorstep, it is little surprise locals feel dispirited.

Intended to be one of the city’s biggest Olympic hubs for those without tickets, the Tokyo Waterfront City area sits empty like an abandoned amusement park. Once lit, the Olympic Flame will burn quietly alone.

Fittingly, some of the six venues planned to be used as fan parks will instead be turned into Covid vaccination sites.

“We’ll just have to watch it all on TV - it’s like being in another country,” one Tokyo resident told the Telegraph. “Some people take great pride in having the Olympics come here, but a lot of people don’t want to spend the money and take the risk when we don’t get any benefit from it.

“The government just tells people what they can and can’t do. We don’t have a chance to give our opinion, we do what we are told. That’s the Japanese way in all of life.”

Despite IOC president Thomas Bach’s insistence that the “risk for the Japanese people is zero”, concerns of a Covid spread have proven real, even before the overwhelming majority of foreign visitors arrive.

head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach - SHUTTERSTOCK
head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach - SHUTTERSTOCK

More than 40 people involved with the Games have now tested positive since the start of the month and Saturday brought the first case from an official staying in the Olympic Village.

Yet, despite Bach’s rather amusing boast that this is the “most restrictive sports event ever” - a badge of honour no one has ever previously aspired to wear - it is the athletes for whom this matters most, even with the numerous constraints.

Meal times are solo affairs, testing is daily, and Britain’s double Olympic taekwondo champion Jade Jones says her “hands are raw” from using so much hand sanitiser. “The hardest bit is just being petrified that you’re going to test positive,” she added.

It all means a rather different Olympic experience to usual. “What happens in the Olympic Village stays in the Olympic Village,” joked one Team GB athlete when describing the “wild zoo” debauchery that ordinarily takes place.

At the last Rio Games, 450,000 condoms were distributed through vending machines featuring the message: “Celebrate with a Condom.” This time there will be only 150,000, all handed out when athletes leave for home immediately after competing.

Despite all that, those involved are just thankful to be given the chance. “You do have to think about the normal people who live here,” said Britain’s Olympic swimming champion Adam Peaty.

“On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have to have respect for the athletes who have trained for five years, every single day, getting up at 5am and going to bed at 10.30pm with a screaming baby. They commit their whole lives to this event.

“Obviously I’m biased because I want [the Olympics] to happen. But I can feel for the home nation that doesn't.”

A home nation who will watch on television like the rest of the world. A home nation risking so much.