As you submit your saliva sample at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, you are told, very politely, to go upstairs and take a seat in a designated row and wait for the verdict of your Covid test to arrive. Frankly, that’s when the penny drops. You don’t have any control on what’s going to unfold in the next 45 minutes, and all you have to do is keep your gaze fixed at a giant screen where numbers keep coming and going. You desperately want your number to appear. For, it means your test has returned Covid-negative.
Apprehensions do not end at the airport. Each person you come across within the main press or international broadcast centre is looked at with suspicion. If anyone is an asymptomatic carrier and deemed a close contact, he or she will be isolated for 14 days and that person’s Olympic Games is all but over.
Athletes have the same lurking fear inside the Games Village. The Indian contingent is sharing the same building tower with the Belgians and South Africans. With the tests of three South African footballers returning Covid-positive on Sunday, each Indian athlete is under extreme pressure to stay safe and healthy.
With hours to go for tomorrow’s opening ceremony, public sentiment is divided. According to the Ipsos Mori ‘Attitudes to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics’ 28-country global survey (bit.ly/3BsC3bq) published on July 13, 86% of Japanese are against the Games going ahead. Tokyo is all decked up, but there are no visitors or Olympic tourists in the city that remains in a state of emergency.
The Rings of Fire
Despite all these odds, the Games will go on — unless, as Toshiro Muto, head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, said on Tuesday, ‘We will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases’ (read: pull the plug last-minute if required).
The Olympic Games aren’t just a sports event, but a microeconomy by itself. With a spend of $35 billion and more, cancellation — rather than the postponement from 2020 — would have left the entire sporting world vulnerable for years. Thousands would have lost livelihoods and several international sports federations, which run on International Olympic Committee (
) grants, would have collapsed. While it will be a TV-only Olympics, it should still be as seriously competitive as any Games has been in the past.
From India’s POV, this certainly has the potential to be its best Games ever. India’s 88-strong contingent has trained for years to make this stage and, for once, there wasn’t an issue with facilities or infrastructure. Rather, they had enough resources to avail of the best training facilities in the world. As Rahi Sarnobat, a serious medal contender in the women’s 25 m pistol category (qualification July 29, 5.30 a.m.), said recently, ‘The one thing I am passing on to every youngster in the team is no one should feel we are lesser than anyone. That’s what I did in the past and only after my event did I realise that it may have cost me a medal.’
While the Indians have every reason to feel excited, they have no reason to feel overawed. ‘It is only natural there will be pressure at the Olympic Games. I am not even willing to talk about it, or take it seriously,’ said Suma Shirur, a former Olympian and current coach of the shooting team.
Tokyo is very likely to be the most important event in the history of Indian sport. If the Rs 1,000-plus crore spent don’t translate into medals, god help the athletes. Failure will turn into a collective national lament of underachievement, with TV anchors screaming their heads off and Indian sports pushed back by years.
Failure is Not an Option
In Tokyo, failure for India will mean no one recognising five years of hard work, no one caring to know how tough it has been for athletes during a Covid pandemic, never mind making it to the Olympic Games.
There has been enough negativity over the last 16 months. Tokyo can, at least, temporarily change this narrative. India needs medals from Tokyo. For the sake of the country, we need a good Olympics.