You don’t get a great deal of down time as a jobbing hack at the Olympics but my schedule at the Rio Games meant the laptop lid was sometimes snapped shut by around 7pm. Ablutions at the team hotel were followed by a couple of beers in the company of any colleagues who might also have found themselves at a loose end. Thirst slaked, it was feeding time: a coronary of assorted succulent meats washed down by plonk at one of the myriad beachfront all-you-can-eat steakhouses.
Exhausted, stuffed, pleasantly sozzled and with the sanctuary of bed a short stroll from the Copacabana, deciding what to do next was invariably a no-brainer. The beach volleyball was on. Crucially, it was on nearby. And the laminated rectangles dangling around our necks meant we could get in. To repeat: a no-brainer.
I don’t think I wrote a single word about the sport during my time in Rio and due in no small part to the cheapness of the local hooch my recollections of late nights stretching into early mornings at the purpose-built bear pit erected on the most famous stretch of sand in Rio are sketchy at best. What I do remember with certainty is that they were among the greatest sporting occasions I have attended.
Never having been a beach volleyball stronghold, my native Ireland were unrepresented, which meant I had no skin – however pasty it might have been – in the game. But the sheer raucousness of evenings when 12,000 like-minded, friendly individuals from all corners of the globe whooped it up with the backing of a knowing stadium DJ in steep stands built under the stars over Rio rendered them utterly intoxicating. The drink helped, too, and the lateness of the hour, and the fact that few present would have passed a breathalyser test certainly added to the always good-natured, multicultural gaiety and boozy bonhomie. Music and passion, with folk on the lash … on the Copa!
That was then and this is now, a time when there seems a widespread lack of enthusiasm for a previously postponed Tokyo Olympics that has crept up on us but suddenly loom large. While the pandemic has already seen to it that raucousness, good-natured multicultural gaiety and boozy bonhomie will be kept to a bare minimum, these Games also promise to be drenched with ill-feeling and rancour. The famously polite and welcoming citizens of a city that was once proud to have been chosen as the hosts no longer want them. Like overbearing house guests who have outstayed their welcome, the International Olympic Committee steadfastly refuses to read the room and leave.
“These Games will go ahead barring only armageddon,” the tin-eared IOC declared this week, having apparently decided that a country trying to contain the second wave of a pandemic doesn’t quite meet the standards of apocalyptic emergency required to abandon ship.
They have pointed their detractors in the direction of football’s imminent European Championship and Copa America, comparing apples with oranges in doing so. Vaccine roll-outs in Europe are light years ahead of those in Japan, while the covid-ravaged Brazil’s decision to step in as a late replacement host for the South American tournament is quite obviously insane.
There is another crucial difference. However questionable the wisdom of hosting Euro 2020 in a variety of countries during a pandemic might be, there seems to be an almost unanimous, widespread enthusiasm for the tournament throughout a continent that seems confident it can stage it without endangering life. The people of Tokyo, by contrast, are terrified of the biological carnage the arrival of 90,000 athletes, officials, journalists and other workers from around the world might visit upon them like so many marauding mini-Godzillas. A poll conducted by the Nikkei newspaper revealed 62% of the public would prefer they all stayed away. Another paper, the Asahi Shimbun, has polled public opposition to the Games at 83%.
Japan has coped well with the virus: with a population of 126.3 million, 13,107 lives have been lost. However, the rigidity of their vaccinations policy means that just 4.1% of Tokyo’s citizens have been inoculated. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest a sudden invasion of conspicuous foreigners, who will all need to be driven about, fed and watered by an army of unvaccinated service industry workers could make for a decidedly tense three weeks.
The IOC’s Olympic Spirit blathers on about “mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”, all noble if happy-clappy sentiments that ring extremely hollow when the folk who trumpet them have the host city over a barrel and seem hell-bent on generating local hostility, paranoia and fear. Tokyo is powerless to stop them, as they are contractually bound to the IOC and any decision to renege on that deal would leave them liable for catastrophic financial losses.
And what of the beach volleyballers? In the extremely unlikely event of the IOC doing the right thing, it would be devastated athletes from all disciplines who would deserve our sympathy, with most of them having now diligently prepared for this particular career pinnacle twice.
But this is not about them. While Pierre de Coubertin was on the money in saying “the important thing is not winning but taking part”, on this occasion not taking part would unquestionably be the most important thing of all.