Something unOlympic, unathletic this way, it’s the times

Tuesday August 03 2021

The Olympic Cauldron is pictured lit with the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021. PHOTO | DYLAN MARTINEZ | POOL | AFP


So, the Tokyo Olympics started this past week after a year of delay. The excitement levels are not very high, the attendance of athletes is smaller than one might expect and just to make it all stick: there was no crowd of onlookers being wowed by the opening ceremony and the pomp and circumstance of the Games. These are the first Games of the New Era.

I had wondered what it would be like. Instead, I am getting accustomed to this new normal in many ways.

Sometimes I even see some beauty and hope in it. For example, what could be more madcap and optimistic about still holding these international games after the past two years we have all had? I know that the decision might have been driven by money but still, what a world where such hope still exists. In Japan nonetheless.

Whatever happened to the Olympics at least, it would be the best it could be given the circumstances. Like many people, I suffer from an admiration for Japanese capabilities and efficiency.

I knew from the get go that there was nowhere else that the first post-apocalyptic international games could or would be held to the best standards available to us now. And indeed I am not disappointed— the athletes are being tested daily and well taken care of. Not to enclosed but also not too free to roam around.

And this is what life will be like for the foreseeable future. Unpredictable yet bland, formed by an illness that some of my fellow Tanzanians still refuse to believe in, mastered through quarantines and travel restrictions that will choke out the usual percentage of people who are not in the “right” income brackets. I say this not to be depressing, but to acknowledge that the future many thought we were building in which human thriving would be a thing of beauty was a fantasy that has been paused. Where better to see this than in the international events that bring us together.


Here is a short walk down memory lane to when events really were world events — my favourite coming long before I was even born. Jesse Owens at the Summer Olympics of 1936, held in Berlin. He won at four events, literally undermining the construct of Aryan supremacy under Hitler’s very nose- as well as setting records. And who can forget the Athens ceremony when the Games finally came home, or the many many jokes that the UK made at its own expense during its own opening ceremony in 2012.

Although culturally nothing could ever beat the inclusion of traditional opera singing at the Beijing opening ceremony in 2008: if you can sit through that you can sit through anything.

For the longest time, the Olympics were unapologetic about the elitism of the whole endeavour. Frankly, it is part of the charm. There are very few other times when large sections of the public would get impassioned by sports that are completely out of our realm of life.

For me, it was the weird shooting sessions, the acrobatics of course, and that thing they do with the horses that dance and prance around.

Fun to watch because they are so strange and unique. But this was for earlier times I think when we couldn’t just watch whatever we wanted whenever we wanted, it was for a time with crowds cheering and energy behind the events, a time when screens were shared.

In response to a changing world, Tokyo is introducing new sports, because they have admitted that the attention of youth needs to be grabbed. Hence the skateboarding, karate, sport climbing, and surfing.

I do want to point out all of these sports are far more popular in the global North than in the South but I appreciate the strong urban flavour and hope they attract African athletes as we could use a move away from our traditional obsessions. The skateboarding in particular is very much a democratic activity that really could yield something fun in the Olympics, the edge it has been missing for such a long time.

Speaking of edges, these are also probably some of the first Games that athletes have withdrawn from for the sake of their mental health. I have the incredible gymnast Simone Biles in mind in particular: anybody who saves some of their Olympic energy for the gymnastics events was definitely looking forward to her performance.

Alas, at the last minute, she succumbed to the strain and decided to pull out rather than bring down the rest of her team. And that’s how we know Generation Z is now on the world stage. Several of them have done likewise, dropping out of strained events, including the tennis player Naomi Osaka did the same when she felt she couldn’t give her best at the French Open.

I have seen some push back, angry fans saying that this generation is weaker than the others who used to power through private problems to be the best they could be. Between constant news of impending environmental collapse, an economic system that has less and less space for human employment, the scourge of social media bullying, and living through a deadly global pandemic I think Millenials and GenZ have it right.

They might just know something about living in the new dispensation that we don’t. Just as the Games cannot be what they were before, nor should the athletes be asked to be.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]