Olympiad

A day after Brazil defeated Germany in the opening round of the mens’ Olympic football tournament, the opening ceremony of the Games of the Thirty-second Olympiad got under way. You’d imagine it would be the other way round but these are strange times.

I’m ambivalent about these Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but I watched the televised ceremony, watched the fireworks, drones and digital projections, the singing and dancing, speeches and pantomimes broadcast from an all but empty stadium. It was a long kaleidoscopic spectacle in need of a cohesive vision; most of it left me cold.

This week I also watched Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa’s rightly celebrated record of Tokyo’s 1964 Summer Olympics — games that were in a way the realization of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics that were cancelled due to war.

I have no ambivalence about the 1964 Games of the Eighteenth Olympiad. They were Tokyo’s reintroduction to international society after the devastation of the Second World War. They showcased an optimistic, advanced and determined nation literally risen from ashes — Japan amassed the third highest medal tally in 1964 and grew to become the world’s second largest economy four years later — as Ichikawa’s lyrical documentary shows a simpler time. In contrast to this year’s multimedia prime-time production, the daytime crowds in the arena in 1964 saw thousands of colored balloons and live doves released to the skies. Its competitors were students, carpenters, accountants and mechanics; there were no multi-millionaire professional athletes. The cost of the 1964 games, no doubt expensive for the time, was a fraction of 21st Century Olympic budgets. Still it covered some impressive infrastructure, a legacy that can still be seen in the city today: a monorail line to the airport, overhead highways, the shinkansen bullet train, new broadcast and communications technologies, and landmarks such as Yoyogi National Gymnasium chief among them.

The 1964 games were a boon for Japan. Tokyo 2020 — the most expensive summer Olympics in history — was also meant to help revive the country, to kickstart a moribund economy, to heal the pain inflicted by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami in 2011, to advertise the nation to the world. But no one foresaw a global pandemic. I don’t know what the benefits or legacy of these games will be but I doubt they will match those of the 1964 Olympiad.

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