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April 13, 2020 Monday 11:28:31 AM IST


Sports & Games

The 1988 feature anime ‘Akira’ is set in Neo Tokyo. The events in this cult-classic, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo takes place months before the Olympic Games slated to be held in Neo Tokyo in 2020. Neo Tokyo is the name of the city built after Tokyo was destroyed in 1988 by a massive bomb at the very beginning of the film. The Olympics is not central to the plot of the film but there are constant references to the Games and a battle in the climax takes place at the Olympic Stadium.

There’s a scene in ‘Akira’ in which a huge billboard screams that the Opening Ceremonies are just 147 days away. Also significant is the graffiti scribbled on the wall just below the hoarding that shouts, ‘Just Cancel It’ - this is where the film gets creepily prophetic.

There were huge celebrations when the International Olympic Committee announced in 2013 that Tokyo would host the Olympics. Almost immediately people who noticed the coincidence began to flood the internet with their posts. The netizens and fans of ‘Akira’ focused on the incredible foresight of the film. As many noted, the film predicted a new Olympic stadium, mirroring the construction of the New National Stadium in Tokyo. There are many more such ‘coincidences.’

‘Akira’, an adaptation of Otomo’s popular comic book series, tells the story of a teenage biker gang that roams the streets looking for trouble, until the group accidentally gets caught up in a secret government experiment that involves children with psychic abilities. The plot is complex and culminates in an epic battle against an overwhelming energy force. But there is no outbreak of disease.
The Prophetic Film

Online fans now claim that the makers of ‘Akira’ foresaw everything even foreseeing the chaos of the pandemic COVID-19 and the oncoming societal collapse culminating in the cancellation of the Olympics.  These posts have been shared widely, making it seem, like most prophecies, that the film predicted a disaster like the corona virus decades ago. The truth is none of such claims are true. But people still believe in them even as news filters in that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games scheduled to be held from July 24 to August 9 have been postponed to the summer of 2021 - the first such delay in the 124-year modern history of the greatest sporting event.

There were tell-tale signs that a cancellation or postponement was imminent as the virus wreaked havoc across the world. The traditional flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, was held without spectators after dozens tested positive for the virus nearby. The Olympic torch relay through Greece was cancelled and the handover ceremony for the Games took place behind closed doors. The torch arrived in Japan but the arrival ceremony was down-scaled. Olympic qualifying tournaments in several different sports were cancelled, postponed or moved to different countries.

There were urgent talks and heated debates on whether to go ahead with the Tokyo Games as scheduled. Though the International Olympic Committee put up a brave face stating that it had no plans to take any drastic decisions like cancellation doubts remained. There were many, athletes, administrators and organisers, who doubted that IOC’s optimism was a bit too impulsive.

Inevitable Postponement

The IOC finally seemed to have relented to pressure. There was a lot of pressure on the organisers and the IOC to take such a decision. Many athletes and sporting bodies were very critical of IOC's delay to take a final call. U.S. President Donald Trump was the first foreign leader to break ranks and raise the prospect of delaying the Olympics until 2021. ‘It is better than having empty stadiums all over the place’, he said. Trump added that if held a year later it would be a ‘better alternative’ than doing it ‘with no crowd.’ 

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also gave hints that he also favoured a postponement. His skepticism came after a poll showed almost two thirds of Japanese voters thought the Olympics should be postponed due to the pandemic. Then requests for postponement from Canada, Australia and other countries, many athletes, coaches came.

It is certainly not that the organisers were callous to the threat. As Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said that they were ‘concerned’ about the pandemic but wanted the Games to go according to schedule. Tokyo City Governor Yuriko Koike said that cancelling the Olympics was "unthinkable,” while initially the IOC said it remained fully committed to the event being staged in four months’ time and that there was no need for any drastic decision at this stage. All that bravado ended when Shinzo Abe and IOC President Thomas Bach held a telephone conference where it was agreed that the best route forward was to delay 2020 Games.

Finally, after weeks of uncertainty over its future amid the global corona virus pandemic, the Games was postponed. This is the first ever time that the Olympics has been postponed during peacetime.

The Games have been cancelled before, through World War in 1916, 1940 and 1944. They have been held under the shadow of human tragedy, like at Munich in 1972 and Atlanta in 1996. It has experienced threats before like at Rio four years ago when the Zika virus loomed menacingly over the Games. The Olympics is not new to crisis, there have been three major boycotts, in 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow) and Los Angeles (1984) but none of the events were cancelled. The G4S scandal in London and at the 2004 Athens Games had construction issues and threat of SARS virus. But the Games went on.

What one needs to consider is the business side of the Games in this scenario. Sport is a business, and the Olympics a huge one. It demands certainty, returns, and guaranteed profits. Going by reports there is growing discontent from sponsors and broadcasters that have already put in billions into the Tokyo Games. Reports state that Japan is faced with the possibility of $6 billion in economic losses as a result of the delay.  The overall domestic financial loss could reach 600 billion yen to 700 billion yen ($5.42 billion to $6.32 billion), private economists estimate. The impact would apply both to the nation -- which has invested heavily in making the Olympics a national showcase -- and to companies that have poured an estimated $3 billion into sponsorships.

To sports fans, the natural reaction to the postponement will be disappointment. To athletes, all those years of self-sacrifice and training would now have to wait. Not to forget the enormous amount of money invested by Japan in infrastructure. The loss is going to be uncountable, immeasurable. No wonder some athletes have said that they would compete even if they face the threat of contracting the virus.
Symbol of Triumph

Still, human lives count for much more- nobody would like risk losing their lives or putting their lives in danger if they compete in Tokyo. US skateboarder Nyjah Huston wrote on Instagram that he was ‘frustrated’ especially since his sport was scheduled to make its debut at Tokyo. ‘Now I’m going to have to be a year older for this!’ he added. The disappointment was evident in the reactions of the athletes but they broadly endorsed the delay. Life comes first, sport can wait was the collective view of many athletes.

The Olympic flame will stay in Japan and it was also decided that the delayed Games would still be branded Tokyo 2020. For as Cale Campbell, Australia’s two-time Olympic champion swimmer said, ‘The goal posts haven’t disappeared – just shifted.’  The flame would become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself in.

Yes, the Olympics is one sporting event that has not trembled in the wake of huge crisis. But perhaps, despite the sadness and losses when it is postponed, it will stand as a symbol of the triumph of human will, of human togetherness over self-interest. After all that is what the Olympics stands for.

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..