A year late, the Tokyo Olympic Games are here

Seldom would so many have prayed for an event rather than their favourite teams or players. Tokyo will tell us about the power of prayer.

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, one of the most recognised Olympians of the current generation, arrives for the Tokyo 2020 Games. The sporting world hopes the Games go on smoothly during the pandemic.   -  AP

The modern Olympic Games have endured for 125 years, stepping aside only for World Wars. What is it that makes them special?

For one, it is one of our oldest institutions, recorded as having been held in Greece in 776 BC. It was then a religious exercise, today it is a marketing event. Both then and now, however, there were sporting moments that have stood apart, individual champions who rose above everything and stamped their names on the occasion.

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And for another, the idea of the purity of such heroes and heroism has been a welcome distraction from war and politics, from starvation and sickness. Bob Beamon, who broke the long jump record at the 1968 Olympics is remembered by more people today than the President of Mexico, where the games were held. Purity is often a myth as drug convictions have shown, but the idea of purity has always been attractive.

Great tales of endurance and comebacks, of pushing oneself to physical limits and surprising the fancied are beamed to our living rooms and become a part of the collective consciousness. Shorn of politics and economics, performances by great champions are celebrated not just in the countries they represent, but by mankind as a whole. Usain Bolt’s sprints do not belong just to Jamaica; the rest of us have a claim to them as well, for they show what we are capable of. Great champions represent all of us.

As you read this, it is not difficult to imagine the prayers on the lips of every sports lover. It is not unusual for this tribe to hope for a miracle. It is in the nature of fandom. But seldom would so many have prayed for an event rather than their favourite teams or players. Tokyo will tell us about the power of prayer.

Consider: Japan is in a state of emergency, thanks to the coronavirus. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said the number of infections is rising partly due to the delta variant. Only about a quarter of the population has been vaccinated. Spectators are banned from the venues.

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The International Olympic Committee is confident that over 80 percent of the Olympic Village — home to 15,000 participants — will be vaccinated, but most athletes come from countries where the vaccination drive has been slower than Japan’s. Many simply do not have the vaccine. The once-postponed Tokyo Olympics are already the most expensive Games, and they cannot be postponed again.

Television and sponsors have to recover their money, while the Prime Minister will see the successful conduct as a feather in his political cap. Sporting competition may be the essence of the Olympics, but that is seldom the only thing. Sport is often a stepping stone to other things.

What will they say of our Tokyo Olympics a decade, five decades or a century from now? That we took a chance and it paid off? That we both wanted it and didn’t want it?