And it all started so smoothly, too. A frictionless dawn trip through the Olympic labyrinth, navigating all those buses and badges and scans and forms and apps and depots and checkpoints, two temperature checks, a ticketing desk, a list cross-referenced with an email verification, a bag scan and a pat down. The huge and intricate machinery of the Tokyo Games had come to life, tens of thousands of journalists and athletes and officials whizzing hither and thither from hotel to transport hub to, in my case, Tokyo Bay and Shizuma Park. This was the venue of Japan’s match against the Czech Republic in the women’s beach volleyball, the opening game on the opening morning of the Olympics.
There’s always a nervous uncertainty on the first morning. This time, inevitably, there was a little extra anxiety, the mutual paranoia of people pressed up together in close proximity again. This was soon cut through by all the enthusiastic smiles and shouts of “Ohayo!” and “Welcome!” from friendly volunteers with no one else to talk to. Then I met an Australian: “Have you not heard the news mate? The match has been cancelled. One of the Czech players tested positive.” I did wonder why I’d had the 7am bus to the venue all to myself.
So the happy Japanese team got a walkover, and the hapless Czechs got sent to quarantine, their Games over before it had even started. It was Marketa Slukova who failed the test, the fifth of six members of the Czech team to be diagnosed with Covid this week. The first one was a doctor with the tennis squad. According to the Czech press, he’s a confirmed vaccine-sceptic who has previously advocated mouthwash as effective protection against Covid-19. That didn’t help Slukova or any of the other Czech athletes stuck on a charter flight with him. The Czech prime minister has described it as “a scandal”. The national Olympic committee has launched an investigation.
Slukova, who had been planning to quit after these Olympics so she could start a family said: “We cried, then we swore, then we cried again.”
After four years of the Olympic cycle, another year of delay, and four days in quarantine, the rest of us could manage one more hour of waiting. At 10am, they started a men’s game, Argentina v Brazil. The last time I saw one of the two Brazilians, Alison Cerutti, it was on Copacabana beach in 2016, where he celebrated winning the gold by running into the rapturous crowd of 12,000 and hugging the random strangers he met there. “You made all the difference,” he told them afterwards, “you were our third man.” Four years before that, Cerutti played in the final on the Horse Guards Parade, in front of one of the happiest crowds in London.
Here in Tokyo they had the sea, the sand, and even too much of the sun, which is so pitilessly hot that they had to stop some of the matches earlier in the week because the sand was burning the players’ feet. They even managed a Sérgio Mendes soundtrack.
But they didn’t have an audience. I counted one DJ, one MC, five journalists, nine cameramen, 10 officials, 12 photographers, a couple of dozen volunteers, and tens of thousands of cicadas, whose chirruping filled in the gaps in between the music. There is something especially sad about watching sport in an empty temporary venue, built for a purpose it will never fulfil. The MC decided the best way ahead was to pretend as if nothing was any different. “Clap your hands!”, he shouted, “Make some noise!” and, in his one honest moment, “Let’s make the best of it!”. That could end up as the motto for the entire Games. These are the “let’s make the best of it” Olympics.
Over the road, two bored policemen were guarding a shuttered Tokyo 2020 fan park, full of blank big screens and boarded up concession stands. Beyond that, at Aomi Urban Sports Park, China were playing Serbia in the 3×3 basketball. The atmosphere there was a little less desolate. It helped that this is the first time they’ve played the game at the Olympics, so there was nothing else to compare it to. But the stadium is more intimate too, with the few people there gathered in the central ring of courtside seats so oblivious to the empty stretches of grandstand behind them. The music is constant too, and the game itself is so fast, so full of action, that it sucks in all your attention.