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How Will History Judge Tokyo’s Games: Supersport Or Super Spreader?

The postponed Tokyo Olympics will open amid coronavirus fears and public resistance in the Japanese metropolis.

CANBERRA, Australia — It will be the weirdest Olympics since a demigod wearing a lion skin paced out a running track. At least Hercules had a crowd when legend has it; he literally drew a line in the sand to begin the first ancient Olympics in 776BC. Whether Hercules had a sense of history is not on the record.

However, Cate Campbell, an Australian swimmer, does.

“I definitely feel like every Olympian who gets to compete is going to be a part of history,” she said.

“I do not think that we will see an Olympics like it. And to have an extra special spot in the history books is just an honor that you can’t really fully grapple with.”

Campbell, with Indigenous basketball player Patty Mills, will carry Australia’s flag in the opening ceremony for the postponed Tokyo Olympics on the evening of July 23. Tokyo’s Games officially open against a backdrop of a global pandemic, civic resistance, and athlete uncertainty.

Athletes and officials of Australia’s Olympic team depart on a chartered flight bound for the Tokyo Olympics at Cairns International Airport in Cairns, July 17, 2021. (Brian Cassey/AAP Image)

How will history judge Tokyo’s Games: coronavirus count or medal count? Supersport or super spreader?

Campbell and other Olympians are bracing for the strangest Games yet, the first edition of the modern Olympics, which started in 1896, to be postponed. World wars forced the Olympics to be canceled in 1916, 1940, and 1944.

And the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, came as the world emerged from war and a flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people (Antwerp’s 100-year anniversary celebrations were canceled because of coronavirus).

11,000 Olympic athletes and staffers are entering a Japanese metropolis that has spent AU$21 billion ($15.48 billion) on hosting the Games.

But still, in a state of emergency and the grip of the virus, Tokyo polls show citizens oppose hosting these Olympics.

Only 22 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the International Olympic Committee his country’s pandemic path had gone “sometimes backward.”

When Japan initially won hosting rights for the Olympics, the sporting showpiece was intended to lift the spirits of a nation after the 2011 tsunami killed almost 20,000 people.

Olympic visitors were to spend about AU$2 billion ($1.47 billion) and help create an ever-lasting legacy of Japan as a destination.

Now, no one is coming. Except for athletes, staffers, and broadcast crew, the key to delivering the International Olympic Committee around AU$1 billion ($740 million) in global rights.

Australia’s chef de mission Ian Chesterman said the Tokyo Olympics had become the ultimate reality television show.

“The world is ready to see some joy,” he said.

“The Games are always full of great stories of triumph and tragedy, but they are always inspiring. And I think the world is ready for that.”

“Billions of people around the globe will be glued to their screens,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

“And they will admire the Japanese people for what they have achieved under these very difficult circumstances.”

Australia is sending 472 athletes to Tokyo, with Olympic officials no longer making medal predictions after a backlash from the troubled 2016 Rio Games.

“The athletes’ commission made clear to us at the Australian Olympic Committee that setting a medal target wasn’t helpful; they (athletes) put enough pressure on themselves,” Chesterman said.

In Rio, Australia fell well shy of its stated top-five ambition, finishing 10th on the medal table with eight golds among 29 medals, the lowest returns in two decades.

But four-time Olympian Campbell is among a Tokyo swim team privately eyeing the nation’s best-ever Games haul at the pool: eight golds in Melbourne, 1956.

“Coming into these Games, no one really knows what to expect,” Campbell said.

“If the past year has taught me anything, it is to soak up every moment because you never know when things are going to change.”

Campbell and her 4×100 meters freestyle relay team, or 400 meters freestyle Elijah Winnington, is tipped to deliver Australia gold on July 25.

Other swimmers Kyle Chalmers, the only Australian to defend an individual Olympic title in Tokyo, Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, and Kaylee McKeown, carry gold-medal expectations.

World champion Logan Martin is favored to win the first BMX freestyle Olympic gold medal and world number one, Ashleigh Barty, is the women’s tennis favorite.

Australia’s team sports, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s hockey, women’s rugby sevens, in particular, are also strong medal showings.

Edited by Saptak Datta and Ritaban Misra

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