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Do The Tokyo Olympics Still Matter?

by Mary Sewell

Nearly two years ago, construction crews gathered near Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, and a popular tourist site in the middle of the night. The streets were empty, the air was sultry, and the workers hoped it would not rain. Machines rumbled to life. It was a little thing, barely noticed. But it was a sign of the sometimes futile and farcical lengths taken to put on the biggest show in sports. More than 1,000 Japanese had died of heat-related causes in July and August of 2018 and 2019, and several Olympic test events in Tokyo had made athletes ill and had scuttled schedules. Drastic measures for the upcoming Olympics were required.

Among them was this project, resurfacing the 26.2-mile marathon course with a shiny, reflective coating meant to bounce the heat away. It was a minor expense for an event that would cost billions, and officials were not entirely sure it would do much good. But inch by inch, with large machines making whooshing noises over several hot August nights, the marathon course was unveiled in a silvery stripe. Two months later, officials moved the marathon course 500 miles north to Sapporo, cooler weather. Left behind was the meandering stripe through central Tokyo, a marker of regrettable ideas.

Six months later, the coronavirus pandemic postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games for a year. Many Japanese wondered if this bloated sports festival was worthwhile anymore, worth the risks to public health or the billions spent on venues and stagecraft and other concessions to the International Olympic Committee. Too late. The Summer Olympics are happening amid a spiking pandemic and in primarily empty venues. The opening ceremony on Friday will bring curiosity and a question that might be aimed not just at the Tokyo Games but at the entire Olympic movement:

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