“Welcome to the Olympics! Let the GAMES Begin.”
Oh, wait. Will Tokyo2020ne athletes actually hear that most thrilling of all announcements? Who actually says that anyway, and when? Maybe it was at the opening ceremonies? (Or is it just on TV?)
I can’t remember. All I know is that even as the Tokyo2020 postponement flag finally comes down, so many Olympic traditions—all the pomp and circumstance I loved to hate, which today frames some of my strongest memories—will be totally different.
Of course every Games is totally different, because despite the incredibly long list of over-arching rules about branding and behavior and best practices, the host country’s culture always manages to shine through. For Athens2004, the Greeks procrastinated until the very last minute; even as we boarded our buses to the Opening Ceremonies, they were still laying down grass and adding seats to stadiums.
The Japanese prefer to plan ahead and follow the rules—but thanks to a worldwide pandemic, those plans and rules just keep on shifting. So instead they’ve had to constantly pivot and adjust, something the Greeks might have been better equipped to do. No wonder most Japanese citizens would prefer it if these Games didn’t happen; they don’t want to appear on the world stage feeling unprepared.
When I first heard about the most recent rules change—no Olympic spectators—I just shrugged. As a sailor, who cares? All our racing takes place offshore (this time in those massive Enoshima waves, which have rolled across thousands of miles of ocean and are just getting ready to crest onto their first land). In a pandemic-free world, maybe there would’ve been a few devoted family and friends waving flags from the breakwater, or cheering from outside the venue. But unlike more mainstream sports, the only people who actually get to experience Olympic sailing’s actual field of play are those with a job to do: athletes, coaches, officials. No spectators? No problem.
Then I flashed back to my best memory from Athens2004 and thought about how different walking into the opening ceremonies would’ve been without the chanting soundtrack of “USA, USA, USA!” Without standing shoulder to shoulder with so many athletes I’d never met before and would never see again. Without seeing all those cameras flashing in the stands.
(Maybe the inventive Japanese can figure out a way to make mannequins snap photos?)
I always say, The Sailing is the Easy Part, and even this year that will still hold true. Once on the water, sailors will adjust the same controls and swallow the same butterflies and jostle for the same hole on the starting line. The field of play will still vary with the weather (how massive will those waves be each day?), something impossible to explain to the non-sailing athletes you meet in the athlete’s village dining hall or on the Team USA bus to the… but wait. This year’s athletes won’t stray that far outside their team bubbles. So all those spontaneous interactions with other sports and other countries won’t be happening either.
Sailors are far better equipped to deal with constantly changing circumstance than athletes who expect their field of play to stay exactly the same from one day to the next. Adjusting sails is, after all, a worldwide metaphor for reacting and pivoting to new information. So I’m absolutely sure that Tokyo2020 sailors will find a way to do their best, despite all the extra variables. There might be a few surprises on the podium—but that’s part of the Olympic allure.
And I’ve absolutely no doubt that the Japanese will be excellent hosts as always, despite their well-founded concerns about a world invasion of their not-yet-mostly-vaccinated island.
Even without a pandemic, Tokyo2021 was always going to be a totally different Games from Athens2004. But I am a bit wistful that so many of my most memorable experiences from seventeen years ago won’t be possible for this year’s athletes. I can only hope that when it’s all over, every single sailor will carry home their own lasting memories of peak performances, friendly competition between nations, and epic ocean waves. If so, it won’t matter how many Olympic traditions get lost in the unexpected uncertainty of Tokyo2020ne. And it certainly won’t matter if anyone actually tells them, “Welcome to the Olympics! Let the GAMES begin!”