On Nov. 3, Professor William Kelly was invited to speak about how the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics compared to the previous 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the event's expectations.
Kelly began his lecture by introducing the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and why they were so revolutionary for their time.
After the conclusion of Japan’s imperial and militaristic conquests at the end of World War II, the 1964 Olympic Games were a new opportunity for the country to create a new historical baseline in its post-war era.
“This image of the peaceful Olympics was sanitizing, in effect, the militant imperialism of the past, with a kind of normal nationalism,” Kelly described.
In addition, the ‘64 Olympics had an incredible effect on Tokyo’s infrastructure, combining modernism and traditionalism in a new way. The introduction of the bullet train allowed increased connectivity between major cities in Japan and introduced an even more developed sense of nationalism between regions.
Finally, the Tokyo '64 Paralympics brought attention to disabled athletes in the Games that had previously been paid little mind. The 1950s and '60s were the first time that several members of the Japanese Imperial Family became concerned about the lack of social support for disabled war veterans and others. With this, Tokyo forced the Olympics to broaden concern for these athletes, as well as target and reduce disability stereotypes.
“[The Imperial Family] actually studied western policies and programs and decided, quite deliberately, to use the opportunity of the Olympic Games to promote a more proactive role for disability services,” Kelly explained.
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics established a renewed narrative for Japan, creating more positive post-war memories for the country. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were meant to revive this spirit and legacy for Japan, but no one could have foreseen the impact of COVID-19 on so many across the globe.
The global pandemic of 2020 caused widespread backlash towards the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Japanese Olympic officials, and leaders who abandoned sponsors, teams, and athletes in this time of the unknown.
“More surprisingly, it was a year in which the government largely squandered its hesitant and anemic response to vaccination, even under the pressure of the Games, as they were determined to proceed, but incapable, it would seem, of ensuring the conditions for a normal and successful Games,” Kelly elaborated.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused many hesitations about holding the Olympics at all, and when it did happen, it was the largest gathering in the world during this time. There were intense fears of a massive global outbreak caused by the amount of travel and interaction among those present, but thankfully these fears did not come to pass.
Despite the lack of an outbreak, the 2020 Olympics were far from a success. Comradery between nations evaporated, and Tokyo lost the prestige of producing a spectacle comparable to the 1964 Olympics.
“Tokyo 2020 was not the lost Games of 1940, they were not cancelled—although some thought they should have been—but neither were they the golden Games of 1964. But they could not have been that even without the backdrop of the global pandemic,” Kelly stated.
Tokyo 2020 was never going to live up to the revolutionary 1964 Games. A combination of factors, including the historical context and recent global pandemic, stacked the odds against Japan’s expectations for hosting the Olympics, ultimately preventing a renewal of the legacy left by the previous Tokyo Games.