Kindness and control freakery: life inside the Tokyo Olympic experience | Tokyo Olympics 2020


Crouching behind a bush in the shade of the vast Tokyo Big Sight building, the bearded American of the small Ukrainian magazine said: “I am writing an article on smoking at the Olympics.

A little ragged, a little wired and cheerful, the man from the Ukrainian magazine had something in him at the time of the mad photographer of General Kurtz’s lair in Apocalypse Now, the person we meet at the end of a long wild road that leans and whispers a worn out truth in your ear. What are you gonna say about him, man? That he is a great man, a nice man? And by the way, I’m writing an article about smoking at the Olympics.

At the time, it sounded like the worst idea ever. An article on what at the Olympics? An article on smoking where? How about, say, an article on the 400m hurdles at the Olympics? Or beautiful people speaking at the Olympics? Or just, you know, go smoke, whatever.

And yet, at the end of the two weeks in the life of the IOC Covid, going from a sealed room to a guarded walkway, filmed, tracked and threatened by applications, curled up in the great panoramic view of Tokyo 2020, it seemed like a brilliant idea.

How did it go at these Olympic Games? Towards the end of any major world sporting event, it is a tradition for journalists to file a grand deconstruction of the country that they spent three weeks studying via the old way of hotel lobbies and taxi drivers’ chat. So here’s the thing, right, about Russia / China / Bedouin tribes.

Readers were spared the quarantine period which meant complete immersion within the approved boundaries of the Olympic-industrial complex. The only place a Guardian’s Tokyo staff member visited in the first 14 days, other than an Olympic venue, was a grocery store outside the hotel, the contents of which have already been worryingly over-analyzed and , at one point, featured as content for a hot feature article. So here’s the good thing about vacuum-packed pork cutlet and cabbage sandwiches.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces at the Tokyo Main Press Center. Photograph: David Gannon / AFP / Getty Images

This restriction period has ended. Interim measures have been taken around the world at large, but with the feeling of having to walk as lightly as possible. Because the first thing to say about Tokyo 2020 is that the ordinary people of this city have been extraordinarily generous and patient with this swarm of non-essential visitors.

Asked to bear the cost of the unloved Olympics, the locals could have been hostile or cold. Imagine for a moment having an Olympic Games in London and telling the guys at Wembley-jib they can’t come and see them. Storm the gates. Besiege the buses. Prepare the barrage of rocket slit ass.

Instead, the people of Tokyo have been warm and patient. Families lined up for a photo of the Olympic rings through the huge fence preventing them from entering the stadium. The people whose job it is to do this work have been wholeheartedly tolerant of the basic mess of the English press kits, the Liberian broadcast units, the Belgian television squadrons.

And yes, the Japanese are courteous by custom, not because they have a secret love for gobs of foreign journalists. There are many people in Tokyo who rightly feel alarmed by this intrusion. These Games probably should not have taken place. In the end, it is about cash and contracts, in a city where the health system is strained and where the cases of Covid are intensifying. Immunization rates are low. This beautiful balance between care and containment is stretched. Outside the bubble, there is anger, which can very well be expressed in the ballot box.

Hence the extraordinary degree of control. Tokyo 2020 is full of people whose job it is to manage physical space. There are paths and areas. There are authorized queues and space for booths, with a hierarchy of executioners from the charming armed forces, to cops with big sticks (So, so many cops with tools. were they waiting at dressage? Companies and faces? Pre – arranged dressage “meet”?) To the glow stick boys with their red lighted poles and their countless “security” people, so much that they really should make minifigures Star Wars style and sell them as collectibles for the Olympic Obsession.

And yet it is a mark of Tokyo’s grace as a host that the experience of its guests has been marked by gentleness. Whatever the final point of this thing, whatever we just remember about it, that care and kindness will remain, a lesson in how to exist nearby in these grueling times.

It’s a part of being here: the human part, the extraordinary act of shared will in managing this experience. The other part, and the opposite pole, is the technological element of being inside this IOC bubble, which at times feels like a slightly alarming digital surveillance experience.

The Olympic stadium has been closed to fans - families lined up for a photo of the Olympic rings through the huge fence preventing them from entering
The Olympic stadium has been closed to fans – families lined up for a photo of the Olympic rings through the huge fence preventing them from entering. Photograph: Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

These Big Sport events are always marked by a slight suspension of freedoms, a voluntary agreement for a badge and a seat. In Japan, this was supercharged by the rare intersection of the Covid protocol, the IOC’s freaker control and for the first time the full militarization of digital technology to enforce all of this.

There is an app to follow you. There is an app that asks for a daily health check. There are cameras at every entrance and assembly point. Part of this culture is already there. Tokyo has taxis that will scan your face and summon targeted ads to the back of the seat in front of you. But the feeling of being watched here, of having no space to hide or exist in private feels like something beyond, a vision of what is possible now.

This is what the man from the little Ukrainian magazine wanted to do. Forget about real smoking. Smoking is business trying to kill you for money. The Japanese people rightly took steps to kill him first. But such is the strangeness of this part of the experience that in the midst of all this controlled space, the smokers have become a sort of motley rebel force, with their own outlaw charisma, looking for eddies. in the current, holes in the machine, little notes of privacy.

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It’s kind of liberating to spot them behind their ornamental bushes, to hear stories about the secret nooks and crannies of the athletics stadium, the soldiers in the shootout who might leave you smoking behind them, on the empty line of sight. behind the sumo arena where guards and screens cannot see you.

It was the opposite double experience of being a guest in Tokyo. At the edges an exercise in extreme daily surveillance that sounded like an edifying tale, a glimpse into the near future. And beyond that, the grace of the locals, their stoicism and the lesson the Olympics are meant to offer us, that humans are still the best part of it all.


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