Tokyo Saved the Olympics and Paralympics

What was the true legacy of the Tokyo 2020 Games? Newsweek Japan Editor-in-Chief Nagaoka Yoshihiro reflects.


Now, more than three months since the end of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, traces of the athletes' presence have naturally vanished from the streets of Tokyo. Much of the endless debate that occurred—namely, whether or not to hold the event in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—has been forgotten, with only the memory of the world's largest sporting event left vivid in people's minds.

For both Japan and Tokyo, the Olympics and Paralympics proved more bittersweet than ever. The Games are the world's largest athletic competition. It is easy for politics to become involved, and an infectious disease only further complicates the situation. COVID-19 flipped the values of "farther, greater and faster" formerly endorsed under the banner of globalization and replaced them with "closer, lesser but faster nonetheless"—standards that are, by any stretch of the imagination, inconsistent with hosting the world's largest sporting event.

One of Tokyo's answers to that contradiction was the close to total absence of the Games' in-person spectators. Thus, for the first time in Olympic history, even the people of Japan and Tokyo, the residents of the host country and region, were forced to watch these extraordinary games virtually.

In 2019, the year before the Tokyo 2020 Games were originally slated to occur, Japan hosted Asia's first Rugby World Cup. A priceless legacy from that global sporting event was the memory of local fans' singing "Sweet Caroline" in the stadium at halftime, together with the 242,000 spectators from abroad, everyone with a beer in each hand.

Of course, no such legacy existed after the spectatorless Olympic and Paralympic Games held during 2020's "extraordinary times." And since Japan had promised in its bid a "compact Olympics," the legacies that remain from the 2020 Games are modest, unlike those from the 1964 Games—Komazawa Olympic Park, Yoyogi National Gymnasium, the Metropolitan Expressway, the Tokyo Monorail and the Tokaido Shinkansen (Japan's high-speed rail line)—all of which can still be seen today.

So should one conclude that there is no legacy to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games, which wrapped up on September 5?

The events went ahead despite the virus's rapid spread, and public debate practically verged upon a quarrel. On one side were those calling for the Olympics to be canceled to protect lives; on the other were those aiming for a "normal Olympics" in order to fulfill Japan's promise to the world and its athletes. The voices of the country's top officials touting the Olympics as "proof that humanity has defeated the virus" rang hollow in the face of a rapidly increasing number of infections creating an exponential curve. (Scientifically, the Olympics were in fact a vector for the disease to spread, so it would be impossible to use the Games as proof that humanity had defeated it.)

However, the fact is that in the end a compromise was achieved (rather than an "all-or-nothing" conclusion), calling for the almost total absence of in-person spectators (though, despite this, many Japanese were still opposed to hosting the event), and the Games did conclude as scheduled on September 5. Couldn't that be described as a legacy? Compromise is not necessarily a bad thing.

Japan and Tokyo should be prouder of having hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the best way possible while at the same time suffering through the pandemic. One wonders what Istanbul would have done had it won the bid—which it fought for until the very end in 2013—and had to decide whether or not to host or cancel the event amid the pandemic? Could Turkey have made such a last-minute decision, as did Japan and Tokyo, caught as they were between providing medical care to combat the disease and celebrating sports for a society much in need of it—all while being mindful of those racked by pangs of conscience?

The people of Japan had originally hoped that the Tokyo 2020 Games would bring about some sort of change to the country and its capital, particularly after many years of economic stagnation. In that sense, the Tokyo 2020 Games were supposed to become the Showa 96 Games—that is, a re-creation of the Olympics held in Showa 39 (1964) that helped drive Japan's postwar reconstruction. But COVID-19 changed all that. In the end, it was not the Olympics that saved Japan and Tokyo; rather, Japan and Tokyo saved the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

There is no tangible legacy. The "sweet" legacies left behind by the Games are priceless—such as the increasing recognition of and love for skateboarding as a sport, and the unprecedented number of people viewing the Paralympic competitions, even if televised—but these are unfortunately nothing more than "virtual" memories. Nevertheless, the fact that Japan and Tokyo were able to pull off such difficult Olympic Games will endure as a long and powerful memory. The world, too, will surely never forget that.

Nagaoka Yoshihiro

Nagaoka Oshihiro
Nagaoka Yoshihiro is editor-in-chief of Newsweek Japan.