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Tara Sullivan

How do we balance watching greatness at the Tokyo Olympics with worrying about our suffering world?

A couple took a selfie with Tokyo Olympic Stadium in the background. For many, anxiety hangs over the enjoyment of the Games.
A couple took a selfie with Tokyo Olympic Stadium in the background. For many, anxiety hangs over the enjoyment of the Games.Carl Court/Getty

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The Olympics by any other name are still the Olympics, but this summer’s Games have more names than usual.

The Olympics. The Olympic Games. The Summer Olympics. The Summer Games. Tokyo 2020. Tokyo 2021. The Postponed Olympics. The Pandemic Olympics.

Or, perhaps most commonly, the COVID Games.

Whatever you choose, for a sporting spectacle originally programmed for this time last summer, the fact that we had a postponement rather than a cancellation can surely be seen as some sort of triumph, a credit to persistence, patience, and preparation in the face of a global pandemic.


Yet as our East Coast televisions get set to show both a live early-morning broadcast and an evening prime-time replay of Friday’s Opening Ceremony at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, here’s another moniker I can’t seem to shake: The Conflicted Olympics.

As in, how do you lose yourself rooting for athletes and hoping for great performances while wondering whether the Games should be going on at all? The gnawing anxiety is both impossible to ignore and difficult to reconcile, this internal conflict of rooting for greatness with a constant knot in your stomach over what is going on in the backdrop. Break a world record, go into quarantine. Watch an incredible dismount, read about a COVID outbreak. Watch the television broadcast, see the empty arenas in the background. Sit through the commercials, but none from top sponsor Toyota, which pulled its ads in symbolic agreement with public opinion.

The shadow of COVID is long and dark, already authoring daily headlines about its impact on the Games, positioned to swallow every other headline in its sphere. Because of it, there are no fans in the stands, the risk of adding to Japan’s alarming infection rates just too high. About three out of every four local residents, as per local polls, would rather the Games had been canceled. Positive tests among athletes seem to occur daily, with the US gymnastics, men’s basketball, and men’s beach volleyball teams already beset by last-minute roster adjustments, incidents that follow others that happened before the Games, such as in women’s tennis.


And yet there is the magnificent flip side. These are still the Olympics — the greatest sporting stage of them all, the place where lifelong dreams of representing your country and winning gold are realized, the once-every-four-years byproduct of years of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication. The place where indelible memories roar back from the past and equally iconic images are created for the future. That’s what makes it so easy to root for the athletes, for the human beings at the core of it all, the ones who hoped, wished, and prayed they would get this second chance to compete.

They deserve to enjoy it.

“Of course I’m concerned,” said Lindi Schroeder, a US artistic swimmer (formerly known as synchronized swimming) who is from Andover. “None of us are immune, even if we do have vaccines and things, so I’m doing my part just being as careful as I can be, taking all the steps to be as smart as I can.

“This entire year, the element of COVID has been something that has had to be part of our strategy, even in terms of physical conditioning. We’re one team, one duet, if someone gets sick, that’s two weeks potentially you don’t have to practice. I think on top of doing it for your health and the health of the world, it also becomes part of your sport’s preparation.”


Schroeder is scheduled to depart for Japan on Sunday, and even with all the extra protocols and lingering uncertainty that anything could change at any moment, she is buoyed by the excitement of this opportunity.

“Just seeing all the things happening in the village, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I want to be there,’ ” she said.

Even if there is no guarantee of staying there. Rising tennis star Coco Gauff was forced to cancel her trip before it started after testing positive, and beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb had to pull out of competition Thursday, when he announced on his Instagram that he’d tested positive in Japan. He might be one of the first, but odds all but guarantee he won’t be the last.

“While there is no question that I’m devastated to not be competing, I’ve now taken on a new role — supporting my new team,” Crabb wrote. “I want to send positive vibes and negative test results to all athletes here in Tokyo — stay healthy and enjoy every moment.”

The slogan chosen by the Tokyo organizing committee is “United by Emotion,” words it certainly hoped would channel the traditional majesty of the Olympics, reflecting how much of our sporting hearts we are willing to invest in the ideals the Games purport to represent. But as this elevated reality show gets going, as the bloated, corrupt International Olympic Committee rakes in billions of television dollars while athletes are spitting daily into COVID testing tubes and attempting to stay socially distanced from each other, we are united in other ways.


By conflict, by uncertainty, by worry.

US women’s soccer captain Megan Rapinoe, asked after her team’s opening game about that uniting emotion, put it this way: “Well, it could be a collective grief from the pandemic that’s still obviously raging, and in a lot of parts around the world it could be relief in finally getting to do things again. And hopefully a sense of joy of having something to do and something to watch. Obviously we’re getting to be here playing but I think 99.9 percent of people are watching the events so hopefully the product on TV is good and people are able to enjoy it, and enjoy all the best things about the Olympics, which I think are all the backstories that are done on the athletes.”

Welcome to Tokyo 2020, known by many names, and for me, by this one above all: The Conflicted Olympics.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.