The Inevitably Awkward Tokyo Olympics

Athletes rebuked competitive norms as COVID-19 became the most normal part of the Tokyo Games.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
People take photographs of fireworks during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23.
People take photographs of fireworks during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23.
People take photographs of fireworks during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

2021

The fact that the Tokyo Olympics actually happened in 2021 was—depending on one’s point of view—either a miracle or disgrace. It often seemed as though there was no in between. For a global gathering that is portrayed as unifying, this year’s Olympics proved remarkably polarizing. Much of the world saw the Games as a moral exit ramp from the ravages of the pandemic—a necessary path to rejuvenation and interconnectedness after a year of isolation. But Tokyo’s explosive COVID-19 case rates quickly vindicated the other side of the debate, which regarded the Olympics as an irresponsible public relations show that placed the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) image over the health and safety of the host country’s people. Indeed, the Japanese public was overwhelmingly opposed to hosting the event.

Once the Games began, COVID-19 remained omnipresent—but receded to the media narrative’s background. By 2021, strict pandemic precautions had become so ubiquitous that masking, testing, and distancing protocols were hardly newsworthy.

After the mid-competition withdrawal of U.S. gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, solidarity supplanted rivalry as the Games’ defining theme. This was a new phenomenon. Athletes openly condemned coaches and federations for neglecting their well-being in favor of hardware and prestige as mental health became a topic of intense scrutiny. Meanwhile, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya made headlines for refusing to return home after a spat with Belarusian officials, instead seeking refuge in Poland through a dramatic sequence of events at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

The fact that the Tokyo Olympics actually happened in 2021 was—depending on one’s point of view—either a miracle or disgrace. It often seemed as though there was no in between. For a global gathering that is portrayed as unifying, this year’s Olympics proved remarkably polarizing. Much of the world saw the Games as a moral exit ramp from the ravages of the pandemic—a necessary path to rejuvenation and interconnectedness after a year of isolation. But Tokyo’s explosive COVID-19 case rates quickly vindicated the other side of the debate, which regarded the Olympics as an irresponsible public relations show that placed the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) image over the health and safety of the host country’s people. Indeed, the Japanese public was overwhelmingly opposed to hosting the event.

Once the Games began, COVID-19 remained omnipresent—but receded to the media narrative’s background. By 2021, strict pandemic precautions had become so ubiquitous that masking, testing, and distancing protocols were hardly newsworthy.

After the mid-competition withdrawal of U.S. gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, solidarity supplanted rivalry as the Games’ defining theme. This was a new phenomenon. Athletes openly condemned coaches and federations for neglecting their well-being in favor of hardware and prestige as mental health became a topic of intense scrutiny. Meanwhile, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya made headlines for refusing to return home after a spat with Belarusian officials, instead seeking refuge in Poland through a dramatic sequence of events at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

All this arguably precipitated an identity crisis for the Olympics, which derives much of its popularity from the hype of interstate competition. That national boundaries between athletes seemed to recede—or, at the very least, change shape—pushed media coverage into a new realm. Time will tell whether the Games themselves can become a more inclusive space for those who eschew—or do not find themselves represented in—the rigidities of competition between nation states.

Here are five of the best Foreign Policy pieces chronicling how the tumultuous Tokyo Olympics moved from would-be COVID-19 catastrophe to an inflection point on the role of nationalism in sports.


1. Suga’s Olympic-Sized Gamble

by Kazuhiro Maeshima, June 22

To host or not to host the Tokyo Olympics: That was the impossible question subsuming then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for the better part of the past year.

It’s also not one he was supposed to have to answer. Suga took over from long-serving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September 2020 after the latter stepped down due to health concerns. Immediately, the Olympics became the issue that would seal Suga’s fate. As Kazuhiro Maeshima, dean of Sophia University’s Faculty of Global Studies, writes, the new premier was faced with a no-win scenario. Although Japanese public opinion was staunchly opposed to the Games, canceling would have likely also precipitated political turmoil due to its financial costs alone.

“If political tightrope walking were an Olympic sport, the prime minister would no doubt be competing in that event. … And he won’t have a net to catch him if he falls,” Maeshima writes.

Suga’s first (and, it turns out, only) G-7 summit may have helped with his decision-making. The group of leading economies seemed to be in concert with the IOC, which exerted a notoriously ruthless pressure campaign on Japan in the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. That international backing ended up—perhaps inevitably, as Maeshima hints—bringing about Suga’s political demise at home. In October, he gave way to Fumio Kishida, the new leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.


2. The Pathological Obsession With Moving the Olympics

by David Clay Large, Aug. 2

“While the circumstances behind and motivations for the cancellations, boycotts, and violent attacks [of the Olympics] have varied over the years,” writes David Clay Large, a fellow at the Institute of European Studies, “the Olympic movement has been rendered more vulnerable to such intrusions by one key dimension in its DNA: mobility.”

We may take for granted that the Olympics travel among a rotating list of host cities every four years, but their ambulatory nature is relatively new. It goes without saying that the ancient Greek Games took place in one location—Athens—but even upon their revival there in 1896, it was not a given that they would deviate from this tradition. Despite ample pushback within the nascent IOC, the organization’s then-president, Pierre de Coubertin, was adamant that the Games find a new host every cycle. As he said at the time: “The sole means of assuring the [modern] Games’ success and of rendering them as splendid and brilliant as possible consists in giving them a great variety of aspect.”

Although the “traveling Olympic circus,” as Large puts it, has enriched those at the very top, it has proved a headache for almost everyone else involved in its execution. Ultimately, Large writes, venue variation has “damaged the Olympic project’s (aspirational) image as a promoter of international harmony and goodwill, as well as its viability as a commercial enterprise, which, despite pious claims to the contrary, it most certainly is.”


3. Nationalism Is Underrated by Intellectuals

by Stephen M. Walt, Aug. 3

U.S. fans watch the Olympics.

U.S. fans watch the Olympics.

One reason the Olympics have become such a lucrative venture is nationalism sells. Nationalism “runs rampant throughout the entire proceeding,” FP’s Stephen M. Walt writes. “Televised coverage is relentlessly jingoistic (at least in the United States), and every broadcast repeats the latest medal count as if this was a revealing indicator of national merit.”

Walt, a Harvard professor and self-described “hard-nosed realist who … should be at least partly immune to this sort of reflexive patriotism,” admits he is, in fact, not. He chalks up this innate attachment to the deep human desire to feel connected to something larger—a void that has come to be filled by nations in the modern era.

And while there is no shortage of examples showing how nationalism has been used for deleterious ends, Walt acknowledges that, throughout the course of his career, he has come around to the concept. “Lately, I’ve been thinking we could use a bit more of it in the United States,” he writes. To Walt, nationalism is at its best not “self-serving and historically ignorant” but as a “‘we’re all in this together’ spirit.”


4. Athletes Are Post-National Now

by Allison Meakem, July 23

While Walt has shown that nationalism remains alive and well among the billions of people who tune into the Olympics on TV, it may be waning in the actual arenas of competition.

Prior to the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, I had been tracking “an emerging fissure between athletes and the national federations they represent” in women’s gymnastics, spurred largely by the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal. I toyed with the thesis that the U.S. female gymnasts headed to Japan might represent the first “post-national” athletes, their voices and destinies entirely separate—if not more powerful—than the beleaguered federation whose logo appeared on their leotards. This new dichotomy was a result of three main factors: individual and collective athlete trauma, concurrent social movements, and the internet.

Although I focused on gymnastics, I found that my framework held strong across many women’s sports. Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka’s dispute with the Women’s Tennis Association—in which she forfeited a competition to prioritize her mental health—made waves globally. And, as I wrote, “perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the post-national era of sport than the irony that rooting for female U.S. soccer players has often meant rooting against U.S. Soccer”—the federation that continues to deny them equal pay.

But the single most important test of my thesis was the Olympics themselves. I had theorized that, in the long term, the emergence of post-national athletes would lead to a sidelining of competitive merit in favor of inter-athlete solidarity, but I did not expect it to happen this soon; in fact, I (reflexively and overconfidently) predicted the United States would easily win the women’s gymnastics team competition and Biles would retain her all-around title.

When she instead withdrew from the team competition for the sake of her mental well-being, U.S. female gymnasts single-handedly shifted the Games’ entire discourse, proverbially shedding the stars and stripes to make the event a more inclusive one for all. On the competition floor, they audibly cheered for their Russian counterparts. And they challenged jingoistic narratives. When asked by NBC about how Biles’s absence would affect U.S. prospects going forward, U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee put it best: “We don’t owe anybody anything. … We’re the ones who had to go through all of this.”


5. Gaming the State System

by Josh Kron, Aug. 22

The post-national athletes competing in Tokyo still occupy a relatively privileged position: Although they may personally feel detached from their national colors, their international competition is still made possible by citizenship to a U.N. member state or non-self-governing territory, each of which has its own National Olympic Committee (NOC).

But there is a whole class of athletes who are post-national in another way: members of Indigenous nations that remain unrecognized by the rigid state system they long preceded. Journalist Josh Kron charts the quest of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—which straddles parts of modern-day Canada and the United States—to gain an Olympic berth to the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The year holds particular significance to the Haudenosaunee because it is when lacrosse—the game they invented millennia ago before it was appropriated by white settlers—returns as an Olympic sport.

The Haudenosaunee’s fight for United Nations recognition is not new. “The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was and is highly diplomatic,” Kron writes. “When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the Haudenosaunee traveled to San Francisco for the new world body’s creation.” A 1961 study of U.N. procedure, however, claimed Haudenosaunee membership “could not be entertained.”

In the years thereafter, the Haudenosaunee founded their own national lacrosse team—the Iroquois Nationals—which was quickly able to top global rankings once allowed into the International Lacrosse Federation. But “the Iroquois Nationals’ path to the playing field has been fraught, vexed by the same bylaws of the international system that have long stymied the Haudenosaunee’s own quest for formal recognition,” Kron writes.

Time will tell whether that system sanctions a Haudenosaunee NOC in time for 2028. As Kron argues, doing so may be an opportunity for the U.N. to back its celebrations of Indigenous issues with action. But the organization also has to contend with likely pushback from settler-colonial states, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—which may be afraid of what such an expression of Indigenous sovereignty might inspire.

Allison Meakem is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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