Without Fans, The Tokyo 2020 Olympics’ Brutal Excess Will Be Inescapable

Japan's COVID-19-induced state of emergency means a lot of brand-new, totally empty stadiums and arenas.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Every Olympics is plagued by corruption and excess. It’s normally a little less obvious than it has been with the Tokyo 2020 games, which have been loudly, repeatedly and self-evidently a fiasco almost from the start. There’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to chronicling the organizers’ misallocated funds, persistent bigotry, bribery and more, all without really delving into the core structural issues with the modern Olympics. Namely, the games encourage displacement of citizens, expansion of police and military, and the privatization of public funds. Travis Waldron is one of the Olympics’ many thoughtful critics, and detailed those and other grave IOC offenses in a HuffPost essay last week.

Waldron’s essay is just one of the many resources for those curious about the anti-Olympics movement. Political scientist Jules Boyoff is among the Olympics’ most vocal opponents, and NOlympics LA is an organization founded to protest the 2028 Olympics, which are scheduled in Los Angeles — both offer endless evidence about the concrete harm caused by the event, and argue for redirection of the massive resources required to host them. 

All the rebuttals and statistics in the world, though, may not help their cause as concretely as the haunting image of the 2020 games. Due to Japan’s spike in COVID-19 cases, the country has declared a state of emergency; the Olympics will bar not just foreign spectators, as had been previously decided, but domestic ones as well. It is not the right decision. That would have been to cancel the games altogether, instead of bringing thousands of people from countries around the world with dramatically different vaccination rates and COVID-19 positivity rates to a place where the pandemic is still raging. It is a gesture towards public safety that will hopefully keep some people safer, which is positive.

That gesture, though, will make the excesses of the Olympics even more stark, obvious to plenty of people who might not have spent much time thinking about the harm they cause. Athletes will compete in cavernous, empty arenas and stadiums — an image we are familiar with by this point in the pandemic, but not in arenas and stadiums built at enormous cost for one event.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics budget is over $15 billion dollars, just $6.7 billion of which has come from private funding. That budget included the construction of eight new permanent venues; numbers are hard to pin down exactly, but those eight venues alone cost over $2.8 billion, a number that doesn’t include all the renovations to existing venues, the cost of the Olympic Village (where athletes stay), and temporary seating constructed in existing venues.

Now, those enormously expensive venues will, in the short term, be visual, obvious reminders of the Olympics’ brutal excess — 148,100 empty seats, constructed for literally no reason in a way that wasn’t just violent towards average Japanese citizens, but towards the very workers who constructed them. The important thing to remember, of course, is that even if there were fans, they still would have been constructed for no reason. This year, that fact will be inescapable. Viewers around the world will see how these structures look 99% of the time: empty and wasteful.

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