Coronavirus ends Japan’s Tokyo Games showcase plans…for now

Friday March 27 2020

Labourers work at a site near the Japan National Stadium in Tokyo on March 27, 2020, three days after the historic decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. PHOTO | PHILIP FONG |


The clock has stopped.

It doesn’t matter anymore about who among the best in the world is faster on the track or the pool, or who can soar higher over the pole vault bar, or who is the stronger wrestler or weightlifter.

Faster, higher, stronger, the ancient motto that underpins the spirit of the Olympic Games is on hold for an uncertain time and the Olympic flame won’t be burning over Tokyo this year. As for 2021, that is just hope.

As everything grinds to a standstill, as expert opinion warns us that the worst is yet to come, only faith, courage and hope remain.

All are stretched to their outer limits and sometimes in the course of these long days, they give in to a sense of despair, especially when the richest and mightiest of the planet are laid low by the seemingly inexorable march of this invisible enemy. Helplessness reverberates. Questions arise. Blame goes around. Conspiracy theories abound. And gallows humour mitigates the gloom.

All objectives are now subsumed into just one: to live. When all is said and done, there cannot be another one for no economic activity or sporting achievement is possible in the land of the dead. For all our stupendous capabilities, for all our proclamations to being masters of our destiny and for all our outlandish claims to having dominion over the earth, it has come to this: a plea for mercy, an admission of frailty, a tear for the dead that we cannot even give “a befitting send-off” and a hope to live. We have come full circle: our forebears’ ambition was just to live and so is ours now. Everything else can wait.

The clock has stopped.

Every Olympic Games is the swansong of many great athletes. For this week, my original plan was to do a story on those Kenyans and to some extent Africans to whom Tokyo was going to be the last hurrah.

Alas, it has already happened; Rio 2016 was their last Games because they will be too old by the time Tokyo 2021 comes around — hoping it will. But all this is a moot point now; the more pertinent question is survival.

Coronavirus, ubiquitous and deadly, has proved that it is no respecter of age, state of health, gender, class, race or any other distinction people go by.

It came home to me this week. In my study is a large collection of vinyl albums I bought in the 1970s and 80s. A good number of them are by Manu Dibango, the Cameroonian jazz maestro and one of the world’s greatest players of the saxophone. I don’t play them, of course, they are a collector’s treasure. But they look better with each passing year.

They have frozen the image of Manu Dibango, with all its vitality and happiness.

Was it a premonition, because over the last couple of months, I have dedicated an inordinate amount of hours playing his music? And even when he posted on Facebook that he had been diagnosed positive with the virus, I didn’t worry. I took it for granted that he would pull through.

And so I kept listening to him. Moving Waves was a particular favourite, and Bokilo’s Boogie and Woa and Africadelic. And at the end, almost always, the soulful Sango Yesu Christo.

Coronavirus has killed Dibango and now I am mourning an artist whose works have been part of my recreation since my teenage years. I felt I knew him like a close relative or friend. Mercifully, the virus hasn’t silenced his voice and never will. It will go on till the end of time.

There is something particularly poignant about the cancellation of an Olympic Games. In ancient Greece where they began almost 3,000 years ago, the Games put wars on hold. If the Games came around at a time of conflict, that was set aside until they were successfully staged.

It is this quality that inspired Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, to revive them in 1896.

He couldn’t think of a more powerful antidote to human conflict than the Olympics.

But it is doubtful than even he could foresee a menace to human life as formidable as the coronavirus. Without doubt, he would have agreed to their postponement faced with such a colossal pandemic as we are now in the midst of.


Coronavirus has forced us to live how we were not wired to.

We were created as social beings and now the new lexicon for survival is social distancing. Coronavirus is the greatest anti-sport that ever happened in the history of humankind. Sport is everything about togetherness; it is the ultimate unifier, the only activity in human experience where intense competition ends with victors and vanquished embracing in authentic solidarity and respect, sometimes even love.

The International Olympic Committee, the custodian of the Olympic Games, describes Olympism as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

Coronavirus has dealt a devastating blow to this way of life. It has stripped us of our identities not only as sports lovers but as anything else.

It has returned us to our primordial beginnings as humans concerned with nothing else but survival.

No longer are we Mheshimiwa (honourable personalities), journalists, architects, engineers and anything else but just plain human beings, vulnerable and scared, searching for a way out of our terrible restrictions and knowing that just one sneeze could result in our deaths. Not even HIV-Aids represented such a threat to our lives for with this one, no contact is needed.

One of the most distressing aspects of coronavirus is how it has affected our attitudes towards indisposition.

It is quite ordinary, isn’t it, to have a headache for one reason or the other. It is also common to sneeze, especially if your nostrils come by some pepper in the air. But these are no longer to be taken lightly, whether one likes it or not.

Just a mild headache, probably occasioned by poor sleep and there you are worrying if this might not be the onset of the killer monster. Asking for Panadol is no longer mundane.

This pandemic has brought out the best and worst among the people of the world. It is a remarkable twist of history that for the second time, Japan has designated an Olympic Games as a recovery showcase and twice, fate has denied it. In 1936, Tokyo bested the bids of Rome, Barcelona and Helsinki to become the first non-Western city to earn the right to host the 1940 Olympics.

But by the time the Games came around, World War II had broken out. Tokyo persisted in pursuit to host the Games, arguing that by the time the opening ceremonies came around, the war would ended.

This is precisely how the city has gone about the 2020 event, holding out until there was such a groundswell of opposition that proceeding with the event became untenable. Some countries such as Australia and Canada had already declared they wouldn’t participate in the Games.

World War II, of course, lasted longer than Japan had anticipated and the Games were transferred to Helsinki before being scrapped altogether. When surrendering the right to host the Games in 1938, Kichi Kido, a member of the Japanese Parliament, said: "When peace reigns again in the Far East, we can then invite the Games to Tokyo and take that opportunity to prove to the people of the world the true Japanese spirit." This is exactly what happened in 1964.

In 2020, Japan dubbed its Games the Olympics of Recovery following the devastating tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown of 2011. But yet again, it was not to be. Coronavirus has robbed the diligent, meticulous and obsessively self-reliant nation the opportunity to showcase its recovery.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the joint statement by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC President Thomas Bach said. “In light of the current conditions and for all the athletes, we made a proposal of a postponement of about a year, to hold them securely and safely.”


Across the world, leaders have shown a grasp of the problem they find themselves in and have put the safety of the people above every other consideration. All, that is, except one — the one to whom the rest of the world would traditionally defer to: the President of the United States, in this case Donald Trump.

Not only has he proved to be shockingly out of his depth even by his own extremely low standards, but he has reopened questions about his own stability.

His incompetence is beyond doubt. And in language better suited to a religious cult leader than a statesman, he has said the virus will wash away like a miracle. Currently, when the rest of the world is tightening the lockdown on its citizens, he is talking about having packed churches over Easter Sunday — just a few days hence.

What a gift by providence that it is not during the presidency of so self-absorbed a megalomaniac like him that the Games of Los Angeles and Atlanta are not held in the United States. And you also can’t help wondering what a younger Muhammad Ali would have said about his absolutely monstrous pronouncements during these very uncertain times.

The world will prevail over coronavirus. It is the destiny of humankind to do so. Rather than bemoan the havoc wreaked across the landscape, sports lovers should be grateful for the gift of life and seek to not only prolong it but to improve its quality as well. Nobody in the world has experience of anything remotely as bad as this.

The clock has stopped but this, too, shall pass.