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Citius, altius, virus: it seems absurd, but the Olympic Games must go on

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16/04/2021 Barney Ronay

The American poet Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story called The Masque of the Red Death about a prince who holds a fancy costume ball in his castle, even though a plague – the Red Death – is running through the world outside.

Prince Prospero isn’t worried. He can pull up his drawbridge. His friends are wealthy and glamorous. Probably the Red Death is, like, a hoax or something. So the ball goes ahead and is a great, if slightly spooky, success.

Eventually a late reveller arrives in a mocked-up plague victim costume. The partygoers are, understandably, a little weirded out by this. Prospero confronts this mystery guest as he strides from room to room. He pulls off his mask. The costume is empty. The guest is Death.

Related: Cancelling Tokyo Olympics ‘remains an option’ says top Japanese politician

In these fraught times the moral of the story seems pretty clear. Don’t hold a lavish, unnecessary event during a plague, even if you are a prince. And if you do, well, you can expect a visit from the man on the pale horse.

If this seems a little morbid, it is also a fairly apt analogy for the current plans to stage a full summer Olympic Games. This week marked 100 days until Tokyo 2020, which will see 90,000 people fly in from around the world to share, spread and super-spread their own mutant variations on the Olympic ideal. Citius, altius, bat virus. Yes. This is still really happening.

The milestone passed with a blast of on-message Games PR. Here is the countdown clock. Here are great moments from Olympic history. Here are the absurdly cheerful Tokyo 2020 mascots, a pair of cartoon bear-cat creatures with huge gooey eyes that look like government-approved panic dolls handed out to comfort the nation’s children as they file into the nuclear bunkers to sit out the end of the world.

Never mind cranking up the excitement or pushing the brand. In reality this is a moment to ask: what, exactly, is going on here? The world is closed. Mass cremations are taking place. The Red Death is still striding from room to room. Staging an Olympic Games is starting to look not just irresponsible, but grotesque, a monument to corporate greed and political ambition.

a person swimming in a body of water: Adam Peaty will be one of Team GB’s gold-medal contenders if the Games go ahead. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Adam Peaty will be one of Team GB’s gold-medal contenders if the Games go ahead. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

There is some doubt now, too. The 100-day marker was followed by the first reported suggestion from a senior Japanese politician that the Games might not actually happen. Separately a group of senior Japanese doctors have gone public, calling for the whole enterprise to be “reconsidered as a matter of urgency”.


Video: 'An extraordinary man in many different ways' (Sky News)

It feels like a jarring note of sanity just to have these voices heard. Infection rates are rising in Japan. Tokyo is in a state of “pre-emergency”. Polls suggest 70% of Japanese people want the Games scrapped, a popular reluctance dismissed this week by the British Olympic chairman, Hugh Robertson, the bleating of know-nothing proles who will change their minds as the games get closer (not his exact words. Roberton is, of course, also a former Conservative government minister).

The next step is the absence of any kind of spectators at all. Even if this Red Death masque does go ahead from here, what is it going to feel like, to look like?

This is the case against. And put like that it feels unarguable. Cold, hard logic dictates that this ill-fated enterprise has become a dangerous irrelevance. And yet. Well, the Olympics should still happen all the same.

This might seem absurd on some very obvious levels. But these are wild times and a wide variety of absurd things continue to happen in every sphere of life. This one does at least carry its own persuasive sense of urgency.

The most obvious reason is, of course, economic reality. Not everyone with a stake in this is a profiteering crony. Employment, careers and continued human activity are also valid goals and there are plenty who have invested these things, in good faith, around Tokyo 2020. These include thousands of athletes, most part-timers, whose entire existence, wellbeing and basic human glory is pegged out around this event. They deserve to be considered.

Plus the world is not actually closed, at least not to those with the money to buy a slot. If the IPL can take place, if the Europa League can happen, if the Euros can have games in low-vaccination host cities, then surely we can stage a running race in Tokyo.

Related: The Guardian view on the Tokyo Olympics: must the show go on?

This is not simply an economic exercise. The money the Games generates provides facilities, personnel, life, participation. The Paralympics, in particular, just needs to happen this year in order to sustain its own levels of engagement and support.

These, then, are good reasons for defying logic. But they’re not the real reason, which is, I’m afraid, intangible, emotional and essentially sporting.

The real reason the Games still deserves a shot is simply that, for all the schmaltz, the hypocrisy, the profiteering, it still speaks to that other place, to those founding ideals of ultimacy, uplift, and the need for humans to produce something that is the opposite of all this death, misery and fear.

Stripped back, contained and staged with a little genuine humility, Tokyo 2020 might just offer a connection to something. A sense of what it was always supposed to be – an ideal, a call to arms, a statement of species resistance.

It might still be a mistake to plough on. Stick to the medical logic and this seems to be unarguably the case. But we have already made so many mistakes. Couldn’t we manage one more, with the knowledge there is at least a shade of hope, some undimmed joy in staging this distended global sports day in the face of all this horror?

Either way, that start date is drifting ever closer, undisturbed by any serious debate on the good sense of taking part. Whatever your preference, the time for that to happen is now.

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