Tokyo Games did go on, but where Olympics go from here should be concerning


TOKYO — The 2020 Tokyo Olympics – the Games of COVID, mental health and no fans, held a year late – have ended not in disaster, not in success, but in a strange sort of limbo.

It will be weeks, perhaps even months, before we know the impact of bringing tens of thousands of people from around the world into a largely unvaccinated nation during a state of emergency in the midst of a global pandemic.

Will the Tokyo Olympics end up being known as the Super Spreader Games? Only time will tell.

For now though, we know that while the athletes put on a great show and leave Japan incredibly appreciative of the opportunity they were given, and while the Japanese gamely did the best that they could to put on the Olympics under unprecedented circumstances, the Games continue to reveal vulnerabilities that are not going away.

Television viewership is down precipitously and never coming back to where it once was. The International Olympic Committee’s inability to ban Russia entirely from the Games for its systemic, state-sponsored doping is a massive, ongoing failure of both leadership and trust. The next Olympics, the 2022 Winter Games, will be held in just six months in Beijing, giving China, a nation with an awful record on human rights, two Olympics in 14 years, which is unconscionable.

The Olympic flame is shown during the closing ceremony for the Tokyo Games.

There’s also the matter of the product itself. Those of us who love the Olympics must admit that they’re not as unique as they once were, which helps explain the declining TV ratings. Sports such as basketball, golf and tennis are in the Games to stay, which is a good thing. But because we see those athletes all the time, they bring a sense of sameness to the Games. Setting the Olympics apart from our professional sports becomes more difficult the more they look like the NBA, WNBA and the golf and tennis tours.

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That’s why swimming, track and field and gymnastics in particular often shine during the Games. Those athletes drop into our lives for a week or two every four years, then disappear. They never overstay their welcome. Many viewers love them for that, and miss them when they’re gone.

For a certain generation, growing up with the Games meant racing home by 8 p.m. to watch every primetime moment, knowing that if you were running a little late, you’d never get those Olympic minutes back. This was before videotaping and DVRs, before the internet, before social media. Of course everyone tuned in. You had to watch, or you had to wait for the next day’s newspaper to read about it.

Now you don’t have to see one second of network TV coverage to know what’s happening. And, if you find out the result of a race in the pool or on the track on Twitter or other sites, will you bother to tune in to watch it?

The answer increasingly is no. In the United States, TV viewership for the Tokyo Olympics plummeted nearly 50 percent from the 2016 Rio Olympics, and streaming numbers, while rising, made up only a little bit of the deficit. The 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and the U.S. East Coast certainly didn’t help, and showcasing masked athletes in empty stadiums was a vivid reminder of the miseries of 2020 that Americans clearly did not want to relive.

That said, by no means are the Games going away, or even in serious trouble. Paris and Los Angeles will be two formidable heavyweight hosts in 2024 and 2028. The memorable moments of Tokyo — from the breathtaking performances of American athletes to those of their counterparts from around the world — will endure.

So too will the incredible effort required to put on these Games. Yes, it was basically a TV show, and yes, the pandemic tested the IOC, Tokyo organizers and all the athletes in ways they had never been tested before, but Japan did pull it off. The Games did go on.

Now we wait to see what becomes of their legacy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Games did go on, but future of Olympics should be concerning



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