Media watch: Putting a lid on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

(c) 2022 International Olympic Committee

I didn’t see Tokyo 2020 Olympics Side:A, the first half of Naomi Kawase’s official documentary of last year’s games. From talking to others who had seen it, I gathered it contained the athletic footage for which most official Olympic docs are known. The International Olympic Committee obliges hosts to produce these docs as a means of maintaining a visual record of the Games and, as with almost all things Olympic, the IOC itself doesn’t have to pay for it. Usually, they’re pretty boring and no one goes out of their way to see them. In fact, the most famous of them (if we don’t count Leni Reifenstahl’s, which may not have been an official documentary) was the one that Kon Ichikawa directed about the last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, mainly because Ichikawa tried to make what many believed was an art film. Like Kawase’s movie, Ichikawa’s chronicled an event that was considered a turning point in the history of the host city. Tokyo 1964 marked Japan’s reentry into the community of nations following its defeat in World War II, and though Ichikawa was careful in carrying out his ecumenical mandate by covering athletes from all over the world, the focus was on the city where it was taking place, and how much it had modernized since its almost total destruction during the war. 

Kawase’s brief is similar but different. Tokyo 2020 was also historically unique but the historical significance was thrust upon it. The games were conducted in the middle of a deadly pandemic that had already caused its postponement for one year, so Kawase rightly figured her movie would have to include how the organizers and others coped with the crisis in order to make sure the games could be pulled off. During the press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan following the screening of Tokyo 2020 Olympics Side:B, the second half of the doc, which dealt mostly with the games’ behind-the-scene machinations, Kawase stressed that she wanted to show all sides of the situation, presumably meaning both the side that insisted the games go ahead at any cost and the side who thought it shouldn’t for various reasons—and not all of them related to COVID. Having just sat through the two jam-packed-with-incident hours of Side:B, I found Kawase’s assessment of her accomplishment missing a vital admission. As the official documentarian, she had access—limited to a certain extent, as she said, but access nonetheless—to people directly involved with the games who invariably supported them. On the other hand, the sides that objected to the Olympics—some on principle, others based on circumstances peculiar to these games—could only be accessible through special efforts that no one seemed to have made. Any coverage of these people and their opinions in the film were indirect and incidental: protesters outside the venues clashing with police, individual citizens complaining about the cost. In the end, Side:B couldn’t help  but conclude that the games were a success because almost all of the narrative drama was invested in how much effort was expended to make them happen. Those who objected simply came off as spoilsports.

No one should really expect the tone of the documentary to be otherwise, since it was an “official” record, but Kawase’s self-identified even-handedness felt like a dodge. The film was candid about the internal and existential problems that plagued the effort before and during the games, including the summer heat worries, the loss of volunteers after the postponement due to anxiety over infections, the decision to not allow general spectators into the venues, the issues that led to some staff involved in the opening and closing ceremonies quitting or apologizing for past statements, and the verbal gaffes that lead to Yoshiro Mori’s resignation as president of the organizing committee, but these problems were generally smoothed over through the supporters’ tireless dedication to making it all work. Mori’s sexist remarks were recreated verbatim, but qualified by comments from colleagues and other insiders who mostly commisserated with what he was going through. Had I not lived through these events on a daily news basis, I would have come away from the movie with the idea that Mori was just a guy whose heart was in the right place but was bullied by media who picked apart his old-fashioned way of thinking. And while I did note that someone complained about Dentsu, the advertising goliath, which essentially ran the whole operation for a presumably huge payday, very little was said about the ballooning costs except by protesters who were rightfully resentful they were being forced to pay for it but whose position was, according to the direction of the movie, compromised by an overly emotional attitude. In one uncomfortable scene, IOC head Thomas Bach is confronted by some elderly anti-Olympic demonstrators and he dismisses them with a sharp, clever rebuke. Elsewhere, protesters were characterized as an incoherent rabble. No attempt is made to understand why these people didn’t want the Olympics except the COVID angle, and since it was reported afterwards that the feared clusters of infections didn’t materialize, those objections seemed groundless.

Another purpose that Kawase mentioned for her direction was “shining a light” on the Olympics as a festival of peace in a world full of strife. Actually, the movie is really too busy to shine a light on any one aspect, so for the press conference she brought two people who appeared in the film as being representative of the games’ quest for a peaceful world. Guem Abraham is a middle distance runner for the new nation of South Sudan who found himself stranded in Gumma Prefecture for 21 months after the games were postponed. He is now back in Japan training at a university and at the press conference he talked about what it meant for his country, which is plagued by internecine violence, to participate in the Olympics. Satoru Miyazato is the mayor of Zamami in Okinawa, a municipality that received the brunt of the U.S. invasion during the war. He talked about how he lobbied to have the torch relay come through his area in order to promote peace among young people there and tell the world what happened to Okinawa during World War II. Of course, when most people think about peace in connection with Okinawa now, they think of how the archipelago hosts more foreign soldiers than any other prefecture in Japan and the sacrifices the citizens of Okinawa are still making more than 70 years after the war and 50 years after occupation by the U.S., but Miyazato didn’t talk about that because it had nothing to do with the Olympics. At one point Kawase mentioned Miyazato’s “bravery” at insisting the torch relay be held in his village since, apparently, “most people in Okinawa” were against it, but, as with the protesters in Tokyo, she didn’t really explain why they were against it. 

Though Miyazato was certainly sincere, his story merely reinforces the narrative Kawase was pushing, which is that the 2020 Olympics could only have been a success due to the unique work ethic of the Japanese supporters and staff, which has been the story about the games ever since Tokyo won the bid for its peculiar style of omotenashi (hospitality), which, of course, implies that if the 2020 games had been hosted by any other city in the world they wouldn’t have gone forward, but after watching the movie my impression was that this kind of success had more to do with saving face for the organizers and maintaining the IOC’s solvency than instilling pride in the people of Tokyo. The famous “legacy” that’s supposed to be a benefit of the games will likely not materialize at all in Tokyo’s case because the city and the country will be paying off the enormous debt for decades to come and almost none of the expensive venues built especially for the Olympics will be of much use from now on. The main legacy would seem to be a lingering bitterness on the part of the public, as evidenced by the lukewarm reception that the people of Sapporo have shown toward the possibility of hosting the 2030 Winter Olympics.

Coincidentally, the organizing committee last week released its final report, which was predictably glowing in its assessment of the outcome of the games, and thus mirrored the general tenor of Kawase’s movie. The Asahi Shimbun derided the report editorially, finding it “laughable.” The Mainichi Shimbun went through each item of the report in detail, thus showing that the positive spin it tried to put on the problems was basically counteracted by the sheer volume of these problems. In the end, there’s no doubt that Japan pulled it off, but given the public’s exhaustion over all the drama and expense involved with its preparing for and hosting the games for the past 8 years or so, the main legacy of Tokyo 2020 is that most Japanese people just want to forget it. 

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1 Response to Media watch: Putting a lid on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

  1. circlejmama says:

    Thanks for that, certainly saves me watching it!!
    As someone opposed to the olympics it amazes me that they are still trying to put a smiley face on it all…

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