What place is this? Tokyo’s made-for-television Olympics

Prof David Rowe

Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London. A sociologist of popular culture and media whose books include Global Media Sport: Flows, Forms and Futures.

Email: d.rowe@westernsydney.edu.au

Twitter: @rowe_david

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Global sport festivals like the Olympics (and the Paralympics, to which the following analysis applies) are super-spreader events. While hosted at a specific planetary location they are designed, via the media, to overcome earthly restrictions of time and space to be received anywhere

This communicative exchange is essential to the political economy of the Games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) sells, at great expense and with onerous contractual conditions, the opportunity to host an Olympiad. The buyer tries to project an image of capability in mega-event staging on which it hopes to capitalise by attracting investment. Most importantly, the successful Olympic host (for sceptics an oxymoron) seeks to mark out their spatial, social, cultural and historical uniqueness, a tangible difference with tourist appeal that projects intangible positive ‘vibes’ for local consumption and the global gaze. So, ‘winning’ the Games requires constructing or enhancing a wide range of image production sets with many moving parts, both in and outside Olympic venues.

During the Handover Ceremony at Rio 2016, ten minutes of distilled signification of Japan were broadcast, heavily featuring the Shibuya Scramble Crossing that, as it would transpire, could not become the Olympic tourist bucket list equivalent of the Abbey Road Zebra Crossing of London 2012. In 1964, Tokyo was the first host city to take the Olympics to the world via live TV. In 2021, it could only be seen via a screen. Looking for an upbeat reprise over half a century later, Japan aspired to revive its flagging image as ageing, economically sclerotic, disaster-prone and regionally outmanoeuvred. The intervention of Covid-19 did not just delay the Games and raise the cost, it created the most media dependent Olympics ever held. Strict enforcement of a series of sporting bubbles stripped much of what could be seen, felt and heard of Tokyo from the heart of its own Games. 

The tone was set by an unusually sombre Opening Ceremony in the Japan National Stadium, a cavernous cathedral of sport searching for its principal purpose of congregation. It dialled back on big-statement celebrations of Japanese history and culture in deference to pandemic tristesse and appeals to global unity. Coverage of the much-reduced athlete procession couldn’t even bounce off crowd reaction shots because there was no crowd. Not for the Olympics the artifice of cardboard cut-outs of spectators, giant screens of supporters at home and digitally-assembled onlookers. Media coverage usually switches freely between the mostly-generic sports action and its specific spatial context. Covid-19 quite deliberately narrowed the focus to the sport, severely attenuating the ‘Japaneseness’ of its Olympic setting. 

Tokyo obscure

The interplay of text and context is integral to establishing a sense of place. There are usually many opportunities to do so, many neither timetabled nor staged. Before the sport action commences, journalists generally roam the Olympic city and its environs, producing so-called ‘colour stories’ about place and people. Largely robbed of such exchanges in a Tokyo under a State of Emergency, many journalists arrived later than usual, entering the country only after much virus testing and re-testing, undergoing periods of quarantine, masking up and keeping their distance from others. 

The press and broadcasters were guided by 68-page Playbooks produced by Olympic authorities. For reasons of public health and safety, once ‘At the Games’ accredited overseas media and other workers were hermetically sealed off, forbidden for the first 14 days from using public transport or to “walk around the city or visit tourist areas, shops, restaurants or bars, gyms, etc.”

Fluidity of movement between Olympic venues and the spaces of the city being impossible, enclosed Olympic sites functioned as fortresses. Journalists reported some sports but could convey little about conditions beyond their bubbles. Those outside, including resident foreign correspondents fluent in the local language, searched for angles and interviewees to communicate the experiential textures of a host city whose citizens could only watch from a distance.

Glimpses of urban action could be caught, for example, in the on-water events, which provided views of the Tokyo Gate Bridge and, further afield in cooler climes, Sapporo’s Odori Park during the marathon and race walking. Sometimes, street spectators were spotted observing varying degrees of physical distance.

But nothing could be captured and relayed of the carnivalesque buzz of an Olympic city with its parties, cultural events, pavement theatre and encounters with strangers in faux folk-national garb. Even Live and Public Viewing Sites, accessible free-zones for watching live screen sport and for sociality beyond the stadium, were discouraged among other “countermeasures against the COVID-19”.

From vantage points across the globe, it could be discerned that an Olympics was taking place in Japan, but any ‘topophilic’ screen memories were largely incidental. A made-for-television sport mega event can work efficiently with little sense of anchorage in place. But for what will Tokyo 2020/1 be remembered and savoured, apart from a clutch of sporting highlights? 

Some people of conscience may have more troubling Tokyo 2020/1 images in their memory banks. They will remember that a huge risk to public health was taken principally in the interests of Olympic finances, national pride and our viewing pleasure. And that it happened in a Tokyo that was largely unseen.