It’s 2 am. You’re sitting on the couch, rugged up, possibly holding the remnants of a midnight snack. Your eyes are glued to the screen. It’s time.
The athlete, proudly wearing your nation’s flag, enters the arena and waves to the crowd. You may not know their name, their age or their story. You may even only have a vague familiarity with their sport, but despite having work or school the next day, there you are, cheering for their success, cheering for gold. Can you relate? Have you been swept up by the fervour the Olympics inevitably inspire?
The 1896 Summer Olympics
While the term “Olympic” has been used to describe various athletic events for thousands of years, the first modern Olympics was officially held in 1896–known as the Games of the First Olympiad. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), created by French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, organised and facilitated the games, hosted in Athens, Greece. The event was opened by King George I of Greece in front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators. Over the course of the Olympics, 241 athletes (all male) from 14 nations competed in nine different sports across 43 events. With the exception of the United States team, all of the participants were European, or living in Europe. Notably, winners were given a silver medal, with runners-up receiving a copper medal. The 1896 Summer Olympics had the largest international participation and recorded crowd to watch a sporting event to that date (a record now held by the 2004 Indy500 race). Overall, the first modern Olympic Games was hailed a tremendous success and the seed of global athletic competition was sowed.
The 2020 Summer Olympics
The 2020 Summer Olympic Games (Games of the XXXII Olympiad) is scheduled to be hosted in Tokyo, Japan, with the opening ceremony taking place this month on the 23rd of July – and the closing ceremony concluding the games on the 8th of August. This is the second time the modern Olympics have been hosted in Japan, with the 1964 Olympics also taking place in Tokyo. Following mounting international pressure to cancel or postpone the Games due to Covid pandemic, Japan reached an agreement with the IOC on March 24, 2020 to postpone the Olympics.
The difficult decision to postpone the Olympics is historic, with only three games being abandoned since 1896. On each of those occasions, war was the catalyst for the cancellation: in 1916, 1940 and 1944.
Approximately 11,000 athletes are expected to compete across 33 different sports in more than 330 events. New sports making their debut at the Tokyo Olympic Games including karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing will make their Olympic debut, while baseball/softball will be returning to the Olympics, with their last appearance being at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
With Covid-19 having well and truly established itself as a global pandemic, spreading to 192 countries and claiming more than three million lives as of early May 2021, organisers have banned foreign spectators from attending the games. Prior to the announcement, overseas ticket sales had totalled approximately 600,000. A reduction in spectators of this scale will undoubtedly have an effect on the atmosphere of the Games.
Are the Games worth the risk?
For Japan, as for all nations, hosting the Olympic Games is a coveted privilege, won through a hotly contested bidding war years in advance of the main event. Hosting is an opportunity to have the world’s eyes on your city, to give your athletes a home field advantage and to boost the economy by creating infrastructure, logistics and tourism jobs for the local community.
While financially, the Games is worth the risk, local polling tells a different story. Recent polls show that over 80% of Japanese people surveyed would prefer the games be cancelled or delayed. The country has consistently struggled in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic, recently experiencing a fourth wave and while strict rules will be in place at the games venues to prevent transmission of Covid cases, there is a growing movement which hopes the Japanese government or the Tokyo Organising Committee would call off the games.
For the athletes, while I cannot personally relate to their situation, I sympathise with their uncertainty. To be an Olympic athlete is to devote your entire being, body and mind, to the pursuit of worldwide recognition. It requires a level of dedication that is arguably unrivaled in sport. Ultimately, years of training, injuries and sacrifice hinge on minutes or seconds of competition. The mental pressure of competing in a normal Olympics is extreme, let alone an Olympics engulfed by a global pandemic. For some athletes, the postponement of the Games may have given them extra time to prepare and recover from injuries, while for others, they would have timed their training perfectly to be at their physical peak for July 2020. No matter which country they represent, or which events they will be competing in, these Olympics will present a unique challenge for each athlete at the Games. Training will likely be hindered and many will be unable to have family and friends present to support them as they compete in the pinnacle event of their professional sporting career.
There is an argument to be made that the Olympics is still worth the risk today. In a period where travel bans seem everlasting and loved ones are separated by impenetrable borders, global isolation is evident. While each nation is facing its own unique challenges in overcoming Covid-19, together we are all feeling its effects on a worldwide scale. Noting that there are promising vaccines being rolled out globally and that these Olympics will certainly be unique from a reduction of spectators, social distancing and frequent coronavirus testing standpoint, will the societal benefits of holding the Games outweigh the potential costs?
Whether the Games are worth the risk for the athletes is undoubtedly a personal question that each athlete will be required to answer for themselves, but I suspect their undeniably competitive nature will result in a high proportion of athletes competing in the Tokyo Games.
Since the first modern Olympics, the Games has represented the notion that we can come together on a global scale to celebrate athletic competition and through that process, promote peace and unity.
The goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
One thing that we can be certain of is that the Olympic spirit is unique to the Games and unites each country and the globe in an unrivalled fashion. Despite their competitive nature, the Olympics unite us in excitement and anticipation; serving as a global highlight in a period that has otherwise been marred by tragedy. They will bring hope and pride to nations who are craving a win and they may serve as a positive distraction for many. Rather than continually refreshing a newsfeed that is overwhelmed with stories of death and suffering, for that two-week period from July to August, we will once again be swept up by the fervour that the Olympics inspires.
At 2 am, we will come together as families and friends to cheer on our nation and the athletes who have persevered through it all. May their perseverance serve as an inspiration across the globe as we continue to tackle this pandemic, as individual nations and together as a global community.
May their perseverance also serve as an inspiration for our own faith journey. As Paul wrote in Hebrews 12:1-2, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
As we watch the athletes overcome all of the obstacles that they have faced in order to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, we have an opportunity to consider the trials we face and focus our attention on overcoming them. Let the inspiration of the Games fuel us on our own faith journey, as you run the race that God has set for us.
Brianna Watson is a policy officer for the Australian Government in Canberra where she is married and is a dog mum.
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