The Olympics bring the world together, but many in Japan would prefer social distance

Even table tennis is impacted by this so-different Olympics, with competitors told not to touch the table or blow on the ball. Petr David Josek/Associated Press

TOKYO — The stadiums and arenas are empty, the conversations are through masks and plexiglass partitions, the contact anything but the prohibited “close.” Visitors must spit into plastic tubes at regular intervals. Their movements are tracked by smartphone apps that must be downloaded and the eyes of uniformed men on street corners, seemingly with the preeminent goal of preventing visits to restaurants or bars. Only the top halves of faces can be seen, but it is nonetheless clear: No one is smiling.

These are the Sensory-Deprivation Olympics: No fans. No natural crowd noise. No touching.

Those bearing official Tokyo 2020 credentials are kept separate from a resentful Japanese public that – understandably, given the country’s continued struggles against the coronavirus pandemic – regards them warily as potential spreaders of new and contagious variants. Everywhere, someone trails behind us to sanitize anything that gets touched, intentionally or inadvertently.

The Japanese people don’t want this – in polls, a clear majority of the public remains opposed to the Olympics, which, according to a recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, were “pushed through by force” so that the IOC could earn its billions from television rights. And the few official visitors, in introspective moments, are compelled to wonder if their presence is warranted, justified or necessary.

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games may have been born as the Recovery Olympics, Japan’s chance to show the world how it bounced back from the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – of 2011.

They may have been transformed into the Pandemic Olympics by the arrival of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, which forced a one-year postponement and kept the entire Olympic community guessing about the possibility of cancellation.

But now that some 15,000 athletes and 70,000 officials and media members are here, all having endured processing and COVID-testing at Tokyo’s two international airports – and now that Friday’s Opening Ceremonies are almost upon us, it is clear these Games are something else entirely:

Two soccer players battle for a ball in an empty stadium during a men’s soccer match Thursday in Tokyo, Japan. Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press

They are the Joyless Olympics, made to be endured and survived instead of enjoyed and celebrated.

After Tokyo spent more than $15 billion in preparation for these Games, the news is a constant trickle of bad, except when it is a stream. Every day brings word of more positive tests – at least eight of them so far by athletes who were already in the country. Japanese companies, led by Toyota, are pulling their commercials off television broadcasts out of concern about the negative publicity. Local officials estimate there will be between 700,000 and 1 million hotel cancellations. Economists predict widespread bankruptcies.

The virus, responsible for more than 4 million deaths worldwide, colors every aspect of the Games, even if the vast majority of athletes and staff are vaccinated. In Tokyo, where, like the rest of Japan, the vaccination rate lags behind much of the developed world, there were 1,832 new COVID-19 cases reported on Wednesday – its 32nd consecutive day with a week-over-week increase and its most on any single day since mid-January.

The arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners this month may not make things much worse, but it also is not going to make things better.

Imagine being an athlete here, having trained most of your life for this moment, only to be poked and prodded, made to feel as if your presence isn’t wanted, barred from bringing family members along and asked to summon Olympian performances in empty stadiums devoid of atmosphere or electricity.

“There are circumstances where you just want to cry or something,” U.S. softball player Michelle Moultrie said. “But I think we have to adapt to whatever measures are put into place.”

American soccer star Megan Rapinoe said it occasionally feels like a real Olympics, but it’s “completely different.” There is, she added, “literally no fanfare.”

The days ahead will bring sights unseen at any prior Olympics, each of them a sad reminder of the toll of COVID-19. Medal ceremonies will be “contactless,” with medalists draping their medals over their own necks. Postgame handshakes and hugs are forbidden. Table tennis players have been told not to touch the table or blow on the ball.

For the media, an Olympics, even under the best of circumstances, is a grind, a whirlwind, an endurance test. But at most of them, the monotony is occasionally broken by an epic night out, or an encounter with a friendly and quirky local or a random blending of cultures that leaves you edified and bemused and above all appreciative of the opportunity you were given to be present at such a wondrous event.

Here, at an Olympics taking place under a local state of emergency, a bottle of wine enjoyed one night with a couple of colleagues, all fully vaccinated, in the courtyard of your hotel – outdoors, socially distanced, safe – is followed the next day by a sign in the same exact spot saying, “No drinking.”

Long rides to far-flung venues on official Olympic buses are a dreaded inconvenience at most Games. Here, they are a welcomed respite, if only because it affords visitors a chance to see something of a country they are permitted to experience only through hotel windows.

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