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The Tokyo Olympics: Then and now

By Adekeye Adebajo
18 August 2021   |   2:59 am
The ancient Olympics were part of sacred religious rites on Mount Olympus to honour the supreme Greek god, Zeus.

Toshiro Muto, CEO of Tokyo 2020, speaks during a press conference after attending a four-party meeting in Tokyo on August 16, 2021, where the decision was made to bar spectators from the Tokyo Paralympics over coronavirus fears. (Photo by Rodrigo Reyes Marin / POOL / AFP)

The ancient Olympics were part of sacred religious rites on Mount Olympus to honour the supreme Greek god, Zeus.

The modern Olympics are a different ritual, representing the children of the world coming out to play as a symbol of peace and harmony among nations.

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The recently concluded $18 billion Tokyo Olympics were held 57 years after the Japanese capital became the first Asian city to host the games. The more recent “Ghost Olympics” uniquely had no spectators, but demonstrated Japanese efficiency in successfully organising a mega-sporting event amidst a global pandemic.

Japan’s coming out party
In 1964, Tokyoites welcomed the world to an Olympics which sought to narrate, in visual form, – as the Beijing Olympics would similarly seek to do in 2008 – Japan’s emergence as a modernizing, pacifist, democratic global power.

The Tokyo Olympics opened before a crowd of 75,000 in a country living through an economic miracle. The opening ceremony blended technological modernization with ancient traditionalism amidst a spirit of omotenashi: taking care of every need of visitors.

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Yoshinori Sakai, who lit the Olympic torch, was born on the same day as the brutal dropping of the American atomic bomb on Hiroshima 19 years earlier. He was thus presented as a symbol of Japanese rebirth and pacifism.

The friendly hospitality of Japan’s renamed Self-Defence Forces was a stark contrast to the destructiveness of its wartime Imperial Forces. Judo and sumo wrestling were showcased, with Toshiba using new colour transmission technology to reach a global audience. The “photo finish” was introduced into athletics. Sony contributed to the games, as 70% of Japanese sat glued to their new coloured televisions.

The Olympics were carefully choreographed to demonstrate Japan’s re-entry into international society, after having become an international pariah in the aftermath of the Second World War. Japanese athletes had been barred from the Olympic games in London in 1948. French president, Charles de Gaulle, also notoriously described Japanese premier, Ikeda Hayato, as “that transistor salesman” in 1962, highlighting the condescending disdain with which many Western citizens continued to view Japan. Only in 1956, had Tokyo been allowed to join the United Nations. Asia’s hegemonic power had, however, employed the “flying geese” model to spread prosperity across southeast Asia. Four years after the Tokyo games, Japan became the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States (US).

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A city that had suffered sustained aerial bombing would now be rebuilt as a potent symbol of post-war Japan. Tokyo became a massive construction site, as 10,000 new buildings – high rises, apartment blocks, and five-star hotels – eight overhead expressways, two new subway lines, and an airport mono-rail were constructed. Tokyo’s air and seaport were upgraded. The first shinkansen (high-speed bullet train) was commissioned two weeks before the games began, cutting the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka from 16 to four hours. Mobile toilets were built to prevent men urinating in the streets; prostitutes, pickpockets, hobos, and the homeless were cleared off the streets; and the city’s stray dogs and cats were carted off and slaughtered.

In the Shadow of Ethiopia’s Marathon Man
One of the most fondly remembered highlights of 1964 for Japanese people was the victory in the marathon by Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, a soldier in his country’s Imperial Guard. Bikila had established himself in Olympic folklore four years earlier by running bare feet through the streets of Rome to win the gold medal. In Tokyo, he became the first man successfully to defend his crown. African-American, Bob Hayes, equalled the 100 metres world record, while compatriot, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier won gold in the heavyweight division. South Africa was excluded from the games due to its policy of apartheid, for which it was expelled six years later.

The Ambitions of Abenomics
When Japan hosted the 1964 games, 6% of its population was 65 or older, compared to 28% today. Tokyo thus bid for the postponed 2020 Olympics under very different financial circumstances than in 1964. Though still the world’s third-largest economy, it had been overtaken by China as Asia’s biggest economy, with Beijing also becoming the world’s second-largest economy after the US. Japan had also suffered three decades of stagnant growth after its asset price bubble burst in 1991. The gloomy mood was soured by the “triple disasters” of 2011 – a nuclear accident, an earthquake, and a tsunami. Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, thus touted a policy of “Abenomics”: a set of reforms involving boosting government spending and increasing the money supply to make the economy more competitive. Abenomics, however, proved to be pure alchemy, as economic growth remained anaemic.

The challenges of the COVID-19 games
Where there had been a widespread national mood of optimism during the 1964 Olympics, there was a sense of deep pessimism in 2021. While 1964 showed off Japan’s modernization, 2021 exposed its financial woes. Half of Japanese people supported the 1964 games before a resounding majority swung behind the event once it had started. They took great pride in their gold medal-winning women’s volleyball team and their men’s gymnastics champions. Before the recent games, 55% of Japanese opposed hosting the Olympics. However, another unexpected third-place finish – as in 1964 – increased support for the event.

Sixty Japanese companies had sunk $3 billion into the 2021 Olympics. Fearing a public backlash, car giant, Toyota, nervously announced before the games that it would not run Olympics-related adverts. Naomi Osaka, the Haitian-Japanese tennis superstar who memorably lit the Olympic flame sadly failed to medal. Like African-American, Simone Biles – the most decorated gymnast of all time – Osaka courageously laid bare her challenges with mental health.

The Afrolympians
Africa and its Diaspora performed creditably at these games, with the continent taking home 37 medals, including 11 gold. Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Morocco dominated the distance running, while South African women impressively won three swimming and surfing medals, with Tunisia winning a surprise swimming gold. Namibia, Botswana, and Burkina Faso also bagged athletics medals. Egypt won gold in women’s karate, Nigeria took silver in wrestling, Côte d’Ivoire won a bronze in taekwondo, and Ghana a boxing bronze. Further afield, the Jamaican women swept the sprints, while African-American women also shone in athletics, with Afro-Cubans and Afro-Brazilians excelling in boxing and football.

Resilient, relieved Japan
Against all odds, a resilient Japan has held a well-organised games that were a visual spectacle. The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured a large global audience. These Olympics showed off a more affluent Japan’s “soft power” to the world. With a tightly restricted “Olympic bubble”, authorities appear to have largely avoided a “Superspreader Olympics.” The Japanese were, as expected, warm and welcoming hosts, stoically accepting the mass intrusion of athletes and media. This was, however, only a temporary balm to distract the attention of Japanese from more pressing domestic issues. The COVID-19 state of emergency remains in place. The nuclear disaster has still not been fully cleaned up. The expected tourism boom and revenues from hotels, shops, and restaurants failed to match expectations. But in the end, a relieved Japan has pulled off successful games, as it did in 1964.

Professor Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.