The design committee behind Paris 2024 revealed on Wednesday 8 February 2023 the new sports pictograms for the Games, among several other ideas for the all-important visual presentation.
There are now only 18 months to go until the opening ceremony for Paris. The revelation of the pictograms (sounds like a prog-metal album track) is a key ritual stage in the gradual unboxing of ‘the look’; that much pored-over and fretted-about, committee-driven palaver that is the overall design and visual communication of each Games – and most importantly, what it’s going to look like on TV.
Pictograms in an Olympic context were first used in 1964, but by far the most famous and influential set was made by designer Otl Aicher in 1972 for the Munich Olympics, and reused again four years later. Aicher used a standard set of design elements for heads, arms and legs and in doing so, created design systems. The vast majority of Olympic pictograms since have been based in some way on Aicher’s work, and many other forms of signage too. Aicher literally changed the way we see the world.
But the essential quality of pictograms, and the reason they were used in an Olympic context in the first place, is to communicate across language barriers. You could speak precisely no French (in this case) or English, but because of a little stick man pictogram and an arrow symbol (also a pictogram) you still know that the swimming is this way out of the Chardon Lagache subway station or this ticket is for badminton at 3pm. (Perhaps more importantly, it helps reassure.)
In the pre-internet age, these things were not unimportant. In 2023 the representative-at-a-glance tradition seems to finally have been retired.
These days, the pictogram is a recherche and mildly nostalgic Games design hurdle that nevertheless remains a very public part of the overall branding. Like most good design, you might not really ‘see’ it, but you will feel it.
So the latest designs were rolled out with a whizzy presentation and a lot of pontificating. I quite like the simplicity of the muted pastel blue shaded tones and the ‘paving stones’ grid effect, as shown above, even if it isn’t exactly earth-shatteringly new design-wise. The brand director, Julie Matikhine, expounded thus:
“Combining sport and style is the graphic signature of Paris 2024… Our visual concept is based on a play on words: ‘Sous les pavés, les Jeux’ [‘Under the paving stones, the Games’].” The line is a take on ‘Sous les pavés, la plage!’, one of the many inspirational and provocative slogans seen during the Paris protests of May 1968. “It’s a way to express our revolutionary attitude, but also a way to tell the full story. In France, in every city and village, our streets have paving stones. They’re a symbol of our heritage,” explains Matikhine. “These paving stones are the basis of our system. A paving stone is a square and using this simple shape we can build lots of things.”
I can’t help feeling that any self-respecting Mai ’68 rioter hearing that would have put a brick through the windows of the media room right then and there. It screams justification after the event. By the way, Mai 68 also had its own graphic design iconography, which they seem to be giving the swerve:
For what organisers claim will be the first time, each different venue will be able to customise the main branding scheme. For instance Marseille, the sailing venue and receiving city for the Olympic Flame, will have the same basic branding but with a different look to Paris.
This is, of course, complete bollocks, as any student of Olympic history who has seen any of the design work for Tallin 1980, the sailing venue for the Moscow Olympics, will tell you. ItG also quoted an unnamed organiser source saying:
“We are obsessed with the idea of innovation, creating experiences and emotions that have not been done before… So we bring together components that are not mixed before – it is a cultural revolution and it will offer something unexpected… The look of the Games is not bizarre – you have the impression that it has always been there.”
Anyway, the pictograms. They are apparently to be referred to as “blazons” (which translates directly as ‘coats of arms’) and compositionally they resemble a coat of arms and act as ‘badges of honour’ – whatever that means. Unlike the vast majority of pictograms in Olympic history, there is no figurative representation – no people. Rather, each pictogram is composed of three graphical elements: “an axis of symmetry; a depiction of the ground; and a representation of the sport that it illustrates.” as Creative Review put it. Sometimes the axis is overt, as with archery, and sometimes not.
Le Monde apparently cocked an eyebrow, and in translation, Matikhine revealed a little more:
The new visuals, however, have something to intrigue. Their clarity and their comprehension, first requirements of the device, is questionable.
“Some are less distinctive than others”, recognizes Julie Matikhine, brand director at Paris 2024. “But they help to arouse a form of curiosity. Once we have decoded the coat of arms, we understand it forever... On the side of the athletes, some were also a little disturbed. But they had a feeling of pride to belong to this country which takes things a little differently, like with mascots.“
The mascots are terrible, but then they always are. More alarming is the need to ‘decode’. Why does the public have to decode it? (Hope I’ve translated that right). And she kind of admits that some aren’t very good? And the athletes didn’t like them?
Let’s look at what they have done for archery.
This is the full logo in it’s ‘digital square’ format with the fruitily retro and playful deco-ish sans-serif font that I like a lot. There is also a handy circular version for your socials. Very thoughtful.
Helpfully, Paris 2024 chose the archery pictogram to break down how it has put them together:
Overall, I’m quite enjoying the archery one, but ‘our thing’ has been one of the easier design challenges for Olympic pictogram designers over the decades. Pointy thing, round thing, curvy thing, someone pulling a bow back. Done. Everyone knows what it looks like. Trying to cram in the five sports of the quadrennial Olympic afterthought that is modern pentathlon? Much more tricky. It does indeed look like a coat of arms. I like the multitude of rings, which adds a kind of historic inexactitude, such as hinted at on this pretty design from the retro-minded BDDW Club. (Read more about them here).
So the designers have essentially exchanged the instant recognition of oh right that’s basketball innit for a more abstract shorthand that will no doubt look better on posters and in TV trails. They also clearly don’t work at small sizes, which is usually a key design constraint.
The problem is, that according to my dictionary, and the Olympic tradition…. these aren’t actually pictograms. This was indeed confirmed at the launch by Paris 2024 president Tony Estanguet, who said this: “Not so much a pictogram as a blazon, a coat of arms, so that we can all be proud of the sports we are hosting.” Righto.
They are better seen as design elements, elements for a wider branding, with a little hint of the individual sport thrown in.
WHERE’S THE PARA LOGO?
There isn’t one. Unlike for the last four pairs of Games, Paralympic archery shares the same pictogram with the Olympics. There is no separate pictogram for para-archery – as there was in Beijing, London, Rio and Tokyo. A total of eight para-sports share the same pictogram with their Olympic cousins. No one has decided to explain why. Perhaps they got stuck, or ran out of time. It happens.
This doesn’t seem consistently applied. For example, track cycling (Olympics) and track cycling (Paralympics) have separate pictograms, with the para version showing the tandem bikes which are now only used in VI cycling – most of the events are on regular/modified bikes. That doesn’t seem too distinctively or iconically different, but OK.
There’s been a suggestion that reusing the logos is a nod towards reducing the costs and complexity of the Games. That’s all good, but as a design exercise, it’s strange and clunky.
OK, so archery kinda works. What about the others?
A wider problem with the Paris pictograms is that some clearly work vastly better than others as an artistic and representative exercise. They career about between representation, abstraction, and dynamism. The human brain will always try to see patterns and representation. It’s what helps us make sense of the world.
The more traditional one for badminton manages to combine the axis idea with a bit of wit and energy, and maybe a slight nod to constructivism:
The one for breaking, that new and forever controversial addition to Paris 2024, includes a moving record. It’s a little retro for a supposedly modern sport, but it does kinda work. Very 80s.
The pictogram for swimming, with its ripples and its costumes continues the playful, French, and feminine themes already established elsewhere, and it brings across an essence of water and movement. Yeah, that’s good.
THE NOT SO GOOD
The boxing one, which kinda borrows an element from the 1968 set for the Mexico Olympics, doesn’t say boxing nearly as neatly as its multiple predecessors, which use either the gloves or more commonly a little stick-man pugilist. There’s an odd collision of styles, a bit like a robot’s bloodshot eye with a 1960s Batman cartoon fight happening in front. Hmmm. But it gets worse.
The skateboarding one is just weird. It looks like a Freemasonic symbol that someone has tried to put a couple of sticking plasters over.
Shooting? I’d say that was sailing if you asked me. In this case, the representative symbol has trumped the symmetrical construction, for me at least. (I’d guess that some committee was probably paranoid about having a representation of a gun on there, like most of its picto-predecessors, but pent includes one). Compared to the others, it lacks energy. Weak.
But the worst one of all the major sports is artistic gymnastics. You can see what they’ve tried to do – cram in floor and beam and so on, but it doesn’t really work as an abstraction and it’s ghastly as a representation. There’s one beam out there in that arena – not two. The rings aren’t set up like that, pal, that bit looks like an unfinished Olympic logo.
But the beams-as-a-frame make it look like something; a brutalist football stadium, or a Chinese puzzle box, or something else. It doesn’t say ‘gymnastics’. It doesn’t say anything about the essence of gymnastics. It doesn’t look like a coat of arms. It looks like a first attempt. It’s just not good enough.
To be fair, it’s difficult to make all 47 pictograms brilliant. Some sports will always be harder than others to make it work. And because there is more of a focus on the athletes rather than the sports these days, in our personality-driven age of TV packageable sports, I was sure that the little figurative stick man pictograms we’re all so used to and able to relate to would be around forever.
Unfortunately, a set concentrating on the sports has been done, utterly brilliantly, more than half a century ago in Mexico. The designs for 1968 remain thereference work, and none of these symmetrical Parisian gadabouts come remotely close:
Just look at them. The clarity. The economy. The haiku-like simplicity. The beautiful soft colours. The reused design elements. Childlike, but in the best way, with that sense of endlessness. It’s just perfect. It’s never been surpassed. It probably never will be.
(The soft, chewy squares of Mexico inspired this jelly-babies set from the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, created by schoolchildren, which I also love for its playfulness and joie-de-vivre – a French quality notably missing from the Paris branding so far. For all the focus on youth at the IOC, this is a stern, adult take.)
The Mexico pictograms were essentially made by a handful of people in a room, and then apparently just delivered to the printers. They weren’t pushed through the grimbong of design competitions, matey contractual arrangements and endless committees. They weren’t subject to the back-and-forthing between international federations and broadcasting and myriad competing demands that the Greatest Show On Earth now asks.
So we have a good pictogram for archery, and a lot of rubbish ones for many other sports. Oh well. The Paralympic pictograms have apparently been given almost no thought at all, with several apparently getting the design brief ‘do the Olympic coat-of-arms thing but shoehorn a wheelchair in there. Yeah, one, two, doesn’t matter.’ Confused and messy.
Overall, I get the attitude though. The thing is, the entire premise was getting stale. The little stick men have pulled their shift, we don’t need them quite as much, let’s do something different. Let’s do something radical. Great. I’m actually all for radical.
After the relatively conservative and sedentary designs for Tokyo, which took almost no risks whatsoever – especially after a logo debacle so catastrophic that no-one could quite believe a country like Japan could have even produced it – pushing the concept a bit further and doing something more modern and abstract was a good call.
However, I’m not so sure the execution of this idea has been pushed hard enough. At small sizes and collectively, they just look like a baffling mess of squished insects.
At full size they act like a coat of arms should; sitting on the wall, stuck in time. They don’t sing. They don’t move. That’s not what sport is about.
Is each individual design really the best it could be? Has the whole concept been iterated, slept on, interrogated? Why isn’t it hitting me in the gut and saying: this, this is right ? So many of them look like the first thing that came to mind (I did wonder if they’d done it alphabetically, spent a few days getting archery right, working their way through, and wrestling got ten minutes the night before the deadline.)
It’s not been detailed yet, but perhaps this designs will look better in video, in live graphics, transformed, reconstructed, whatever. Perhaps something more interesting is to come. For me, it won’t be dethroning Mexico ’68 from my pictogram top-of-the-pops this time.
In 2016, I attended the archery World Cup Final, held in Odense, Denmark not long after the Olympics and Paralympics wrapped in Rio. When I was there, I wrote a piece for World Archery about things that people always take with them to tournaments; which brought an interesting range of answers from cuddly toys to beef jerky.
I asked the question (via a helpful translator) to Tan Ya-Ting – twice an Olympian, multiple world and circuit medallist, and a veteran fixture on the Chinese Taipei team. She held out her hands for my camera, showing me two Buddhist temple amulets. She told me the one on the left is from a temple near her house, and it’s supposed to bring safety and security.
The one on the right is from a temple near her best friend’s house, and it’s supposed to bring good results. (Later that day, Tan Ya Ting got knocked out by Ki Bo Bae in the semi-finals, and went on to take bronze.)
Ya Ting was still very much at it at the Taipei Archery Open in December 2022, although she didn’t trouble the higher brackets of the women’s recurve division. But the lady shooting next to her had a similar amulet hanging from her back.
It’s true that many archers, and many elite archers are God-fearing men and women, including some of the sport’s most famous champions. Many bring amulets, talismans, prayer beads, or other religious artefacts with them on tour.
I’ve heard plans and goals qualified with multiple ‘inshallahs‘, and the Christian equivalent from many more. I’ve seen prayers waiting to go on, and prayers on the podium, and thanking the big man on high after slamming in that win, countless times. It’s part of the fabric of international sport, and part of life. But I’ve long been fascinated with the interplay of religion and luck. I was hoping, before I went to Taiwan, that I’d find out a bit more about it. Also, I was hungry. Really hungry.
A short version: the ‘Chinese Taipei’ pseudonym is carefully negotiated to not really mean anything specific and custom-designed to avoid damaging political rows. Which is why it is absolutely sacrosanct to organisations like the International Olympic Committee. Which is why you will never see the word ‘Taiwan’ in any Olympic context or referring to an Olympic sport like archery, ever.
Once you actually get to Taiwan, it’s a different matter, and you will find that the words ‘Chinese Taipei’ don’t exist – in their English-language press at least. You can delve into the history of modern Taiwan all day. A short version: since the transition to democracy at the end of the 1980s, after decades of brutal military dictatorship, there has been a long, steady and inexorable demographic change in its population towards independence and a distinctly Taiwanese identity.
Many people now see the ‘Chinese Taipei’ fig leaf – negotiated in 1979 to allow Taiwan to take part in Olympic and other international sport – as an embarrassing compromise belonging to another era. There have even been street protests about it, part of the wider (and magnificently named) de-sinicization movement.
In February 2018, a referendum question was proposed that asked if the nation should apply under the name of ‘Taiwan’ for all international sports events, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This bit of sabre-rattling led the East Asian Olympic Committee to revoke the Taiwanese city of Taichung’s rights to host the first East Asian Youth Games. In Lausanne, the IOC was also deeply unhappy and sent three different warnings to the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee ahead of the referendum vote, making it abundantly clear that they risked being barred from the Olympics.
In the end, the proposal was narrowly rejected: “the main argument for opposing the name change was worrying that Taiwan may lose its Olympic membership under Chinese pressure, which would result in athletes unable to compete in the Olympics.” The Olympics is a big thing here, and the archers are a big part of that thing.
And that’s just our thing. The archery success in Korea has also been mirrored in Taiwan down to the modern structure, with pro teams and corporate sponsorship driving the ultimate goal of international medals on the world stage.
There are many other interesting parallels with modern Taiwan and South Korea; ‘island’ nations (literally or figuratively), both conquered by Japan, reborn after crushing civil wars, suffering decades of dictatorship, and creating economic miracles against the backdrop of powerful communist neighbours. In this century both are hi-tech powerhouses deploying variants of soft power around the world. The difference is, that Taiwan remains only a de facto state, with mainland China consisting and aggressively fending off any and all attempts to make it de jure.
Today Taiwan is a country a sixth the size of Great Britain with a third of the population, almost all crammed onto the western half of the island. Again like South Korea, around two thirds of the country is mountains or uplands. Around a third of the population live in the Taipei metropolitan area. Taiwan has an extraordinary culture all of its own, which has long set sail from its Han Chinese and mainland roots.
So I’m here for archery. Mostly. The instant I am able – about ten minutes after checking into my hotel – I head for the Ningxia night market, which turns out to be a two kilometre wander through dark, dense and oddly European looking streets. Only antique shops are still open by now, along with the ubiquitous 7-Elevens found on almost every corner. Once I finally get there, everything instantly sings of the city, in the rain; the steam, the lights, the beckoning hand art, the smells, the thrum, the energy.
In Britain, street food has become something aspirational and imported, another take of the fabled ‘cafe culture’ that we supposedly yearn for. We even now happily import some versions wholesale to major cities, such as German Christmas markets. It’s exotic and expensive, and often a flex of ‘modern British’ cuisine.
In Taiwan, night markets are strongly associated with religion. Almost all of them – there are around a dozen just in Taipei, depending on definition – are based around temples, serving food and goods for temple-goers. They have become iconic markers of Taiwanese culture in their own right, with their own standards and patterns and etiquette. It helps that Taiwan has a temperate climate almost all year round, and while drizzly and humid, rarely gets cold enough not to allow people to venture outside.
There’s nothing fancy about the night markets. Cheap chairs, strings of lights, gas canisters. The food is relatively simple: each stall usually focuses on one or two dishes only. I am starving. I want to eat pretty much everything everywhere, but decide on grilled squid first. A voracious predator, helplessly spatchcocked onto hot bars, helped to its final fate with a blowtorch.
I can smell it again now; the smoke, the spices from the hoisin and chili barbeque sauce that smothers it, the hint of herbs and the singe of suckers. Eventually, a nice lady chops it for me and adds what tastes like Thai basil and even more hot, orange chilis, and hands it to me. Who are you? You don’t speak Chinese. A shrug. She doesn’t care. No one cares. You’re another punter.
It’s delicious. It hits every beat for grilled marine life and charred flesh and zinging satisfaction. I destroy it in minutes, and move on to some of the more interesting delights; the grilled chicken, and the gua bao bun barely holding on its chunks of sticky pork belly. Feel a greed I’ve not felt for years.
Oh sorry, yes… archery. The next day I am welcomed into the depths of the cavernous NTSU Arena, a gladiatorial multi-purpose sports venue heading back out of the city, back towards the airport, on the almost ridiculously efficient mass transit system. It’s affectionately known as ‘The Burger‘. It’s tidy and clean even if, like quite a lot of things in Taipei, it could do with a lick of paint.
Unlike the vast majority of indoor archery venues it is properly lit, so the archers can see the targets. (You know. The basic stuff.) The organisation is impeccable. We’re also back to masks. Everyone wears masks, all the time, when not shooting. In the arena. In the airport. On the train. In the hotel. Remember that? Remember how that used to be?.
The venue has coffee and judges and archers and people striding around and all the usual. But there’s this slight Lord Of The Flies feel; with the exception of the venue staff and the creaking archery carnies like myself manning stalls and cameras, the average age of the peloton is just twenty years old. There’s an immense youth contingent dragging that average down, but it’s notable just how incredibly young and fresh faced and in-shape everyone is. Healthy young people. Everywhere. Goddamn them all. And organised, into schools and pro teams and sponsors and much more.
The long-planned, but last-minute organisation, on top of some of the longest lasting and strictest COVID immigration rules in the world, means that only a handful of overseas archers have made it to this international event. There’s a few each from Hong Kong, Singapore, India and some others, and just two from Europe – but what a two. Mike and Gaby Schloesser, who I already bumped into at the airport, are very much turning up to win. Gaby asks me what I am doing here. I say I’m here because of the food. She laughs. She thinks I’m joking.
Thank you Ting-Ni. The way to a man’s heart, and all that. In the overly-tableclothed press den suddenly appears some cold pressed tofu flavoured with fivespice and something dark and liquorice-y, plus a preserved ‘iron’ egg, looking like a black plum, thrumming with sweet spice. There’s also some kind of sliced fruit which seems like apple but isn’t quite an apple (or was it?), lightly dusted with cinnamon and maybe something else. I should have asked about this one. But I quite like not spoiling the strange magic. It’s all good. The entry fee includes lunch for all. The lunch is good too; pork and rice and two kinds of salad. You don’t get that at Stoneleigh.
Not all the host nation’s Olympic team are here, with the most notable absence being 2019 World Champion Lei Chien-Ying, doyenne of the international women’s recurve team, and one of the few archers with that presence, who seemed to grow into the role of upsetter she occupied in Den Bosch in those heady pre-pandemic days. She can flex. She can strut. The Svetlana Khorkina of archery. I hope she stays around.
But it’s clear, from the qualification round, that compound men and recurve women are Mike and Gaby’s to lose, respectively. Mikey in particular is in full flow, zero doubts, rattling off the shots, nodding, stomping. It’s all there today.
At the end of the day I sneak off on the train to Keelung, the coastal city north-east of Taipei, famous for its night market. This one is supposed to be more tourist friendly, unlike the slightly intimidating Ningxia. It a quiet night under the drizzle, and I don’t see any other tourists – at least, not Western European ones.
Each stall has its key offering listed in Chinese, English and Japanese. It’s just as well. While younger people here tend to speak at least a tiny bit of English, older people mostly don’t and the miracle that is Google Translate’s camera feature often breaks down into a chaotic and terrifying mess:
Keelung lives up to expectations. The temple in the middle is blocked off and undergoing restoration, and the picturesquely Instagrammable rows of yellow lanterns were turned off this evening. But the food and the atmosphere are still electric, if you can avoid the ever-present scooters piling down tiny streets and through the market itself. Despite the drizzle, there’s a feeling of a bit more depth here, and a slightly tense undercurrent. It’s not for show.
I hit the ground eating. The strangeness and deliciousness of the deep fried tempura fish paste; neither fishy not pasty. First-rate takoyaki, as it should be in a port town; grilled puffs of seasoned batter with a hunk of octopus in the middle, with sweeter and savoury sauces and seasonings scattered along the top. Takoyaki are of course a Japanese street food; part of a wide spectrum of Japanese cultural influences in Taiwan.
Finally, I demolish a greasy bag of tiny ‘one bite’ sausages for a few pence each, thrumming with hot porky goodness, raw garlic scattered alongside.
I can still taste them now. Of course, for me there is an element of exoticism, that Blade Runner mix of Chinese signs and neon and rain and food and so on. But I can feel the heat in my mouth and hear the noise of the market, and sense the slight ennui and the damp and the sea breeze. I can feel my tired feet walking back to the station and the chill of the boardwalk. I’m still there, if I want to be.
It’s abundantly clear that Taipei is a fully functioning city, at least if it’s judged by its mass transit system, which is abundant, clean, helpfully signed, and (crucially) with clean toilets in every single station. I am starting to judge ‘major world city’ status by this last metric. Can any city which doesn’t have usable toilets in every station be even classed as fully functioning? If you’ve ever tried to take an elderly relative on a day around London, you may have an answer to that question.
Of course, the immense Taipei metro system doubles up as an air raid shelter that can apparently hold the entire population of the city, just in case there is ever some kind of… incident. Clean toilets and exceptional food available all evening. That’s not much to ask, really, is it?
Oh sorry, yes… archery. It turns out to be well worth waiting for. The long day of finals on Sunday winds on into the senior competition in the evening, all broadcast in 8k virtual reality. The Schloessers stay calm and collected and take their wins. Mike’s opponent in the gold match, the 24 year-old Chen Chieh-Lin had put in a 149 in the 1/8 round, but seemed tense and nervous on the stage, and quickly fell away. Against a on-point Mike in full flow, there was no coming back. It got to the point where a single nine from Mike, barely outside the ring, drew a gasp from the audience. But it was barely even a blip.
Ten minutes later, Gaby takes the stage against Shilin Liu of Chinese Taipei, who had shot consistently if unremarkably to make the final. Schloesser, who had pounded the Dutch national record into smithereens in qualification, hadn’t dropped a match point until the semi, when she was pushed a little by Fan Wang-Ting of the host nation, who went on to take bronze.
With a loping, elegant draw, Liu stepped up to the plate, looking the least nervous of the host finalists by far. It wasn’t enough. Not even close. Schloesser(s) scorched earth again. Mike and Gaby, against jet lag and the best one of the biggest Asian archery nations can throw at them, have performed brilliantly. They both look exhausted. It’s tough at the top. And full marks to Wei Chun Heng. An inaugural champion, and a stand up guy.
The competition wrapped, I head off to Raohe night market, attached to the Songshan Ciyou temple, a Daoist landmark. To call temples in Taiwan ‘ornate’ is understating the issue somewhat; in what might be considered a competitive religious market, temples pile dragon upon dragon, turret upon roof, and wild detail upon all.
While the Ciyou temple is Daoist in focus, dedicated to the goddess Matsu, in practice most temples have a kind of syncretic approach combining Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion. There is also a temple here dedicated to Confucius, in a country where Confucianism hovers between philosophy and religion. (Reading about the Three Teachings may be useful here). There are also syncretic creeds aiming to unite all.
In short, religious freedom has lent Taipei a colourful atmosphere, and contrasts sharply with mainland China, where the Cultural Revolution saw folk religion almost hounded out of existence.
It’s also an extraordinarily religious place overall. The whole country has 12,000 temples, with 700 in Taipei alone. As my very handy Insight Guides app tells me: “Traditional customs, beliefs, icons, and old superstitions permeate all levels of society in Taipei. Most adults – even those who may not profess a particular religion – routinely worship at a church or temple, and engage in spiritual activity.” That doesn’t include nearly 4000 Christian churches across the island as well.
It appears that communing with the divine in Taiwan has something of a pragmatic, transactional approach. You can visit a temple to ask a particular god for divine assistance, but you must express gratitude by lighting incense, burning paper money, and other offerings. You may also ask questions using jiaobei, or wooden ‘moon blocks’. Large bins of them are available in temples. The way the blocks fall, when thrown to the ground, will give you the answer you seek, or indicate the pleasure or displeasure of whoever you decided to ask. In the smoke and the gloom, you may find what you are looking for.
Barely steps from the temple door is Raohe Night Market, serving all who worship and all who seek answers. Crammed tightly down a narrow street, it’s a swirling riot of colour and smell and ringing bowls and gaudy midway barking. The will-I-or-won’t-I of a visit to the temple is mirrored here, with carnival games of chance; bagatelle, pachinko, for prizes or more. Fortune teller booths line each side; it seems to mostly be a profession for older gentlemen. You can go fishing. Buy clothes. Play games. Gamble. And eat all kinds of terrifying and wondrous food.
There’s a few things I want to try, but I head straight for the stall doing black pepper rolls. Several of the night market stalls have managed to make it into the no-doubt-utterly-insufferable Bib Gourmand, including this one. (Sixty bucks is about £1.60). It’s a bun, filled with lightly spiced pork and cooked in a tandoor-style oven.
The meat is interesting, softly spiced, but not the highlight. The miracle was the delicious bread which somehow managed to be soft, crisp and a bit flaky at the same time, with the lovely little burned bits that add something to a proper pizza crust. It’s meat and bread. But it’s somehow completely unique. I want to scoff twenty of them.
I’m used to cities, even though I don’t live in one anymore. I like to think I understand them. But there’s something markedly different about Taipei. For all its Western trappings, there seems to be something else; a sense of caring, of welcoming other influences, a sense of moving with the world rather than against it. Maybe that’s Daoism in action.
Monday is my last day. I want to wander, but many things are closed, and my legs and body are tired. I go to look at a few things, but eventually just decided to pause and sit at Xingtian Temple, one of the ‘new builds’ from the 1960s, and dedicated to some rather authoritarian-sounding god, which doesn’t sound very Daoist to me, but I’m new at this game. It’s now something I try to do in any new place; find a spot where something is happening, and just sit and listen and watch; be aware, absorb. Sit by the flow. Your thoughts wander. You try to bring them back.
For all the dragons and paint, the carvings and the incense, the temples are pretty simple buildings. This one, on a workday lunchtime, is fuller than any church in Britain or Europe that I’ve ever seen. It at least seems to celebrate the congregants rather than the landowners. Line up and be blessed. Rattle your jiaobei. Bow your head, together. Be part of it.
There is a book called Keeping Together In Time by the American historian William H McNeill, which argues that synchronised movement (and also singing) is a underappreciated force in human history; fostering cohesion amongst groups. You see it here, as you see it many places, the collective nod. I find myself joining in. I can’t not.
I also start thinking about archery. On the field, as in the temple, you join in together, and you wish for luck. That this time, you will bring the best of your ability. This time, the magic will not leave you. We all know that it is a sport in which you make your own luck, but the variance, especially at the very highest level, is the unkindest cut of all. It sometimes feels like you have upset a deity somewhere.
It’s always bloody archery, the sport that glaringly reflects your life back at you. You go through the ritual. You put on your robes, you make everything ready. You light the metaphorical incense. What are the bones going to reveal today? No wonder it is a sport for the God-fearing. Sometimes, the truth is just too hard.
It’s Thursday 29th July, 2021. An San of Korea had already won two gold medals in mixed team and women’s team. She’s paraded through the mixed zone, the labyrinth of rails that athletes must enter to speak to the media after their matches. (The rules for athletes are, you have to go in there, but you don’t have to say anything.) One of the journalists asks her a question, and is instantly cut off by An San’s coach, Park Chaesoon. You know the guy. Looks like this.
Almost overnight, a story has blown up about a deluge of online hate aimed at her and focusing on, of all things, her short haircut. It had snuck out via Korean blogs and social media and reached one of the journalists who had camped out in Yumenoshima Park for the week. Question squashed, Park and An make a quick exit.
It was a story that touched upon many things, including some particularly creaking attitudes at home, but apparently enough trolls had marked An out as a ‘feminist’, because of the way she cut her hair. How many people did this involve? It’s difficult to say, but it involved an online group called (in translation) ‘The New Men’s Solidarity Network’, among others, whose fragile attack troops deluged the bulletin boards of the KAA and elsewhere, demanding that she return the two gold medals she had already won.
Now it’s Friday morning, and An San is fresh from her first match, demolishing Deepika Kumari six-nil – just as she did at the Tokyo test event in 2019, with the same scoreline.
Once again, she goes through the press paddock. The same Korean journalist who asked the question last night and many more pack the rail. Chaesoon stands right next to her, arms folded, glaring, then loudly proclaims to the press that his charge will not answer ‘irrelevant’ questions. The World Archery head of media and the venue media manager line up behind him. Chaesoon stares down the rail of journalists. A few tentative questions, and she’s off to lunch.
The journalists backed down, but it seems to reinforce the story’s importance. That evening, dozens of Korean press and photographers jammed the venue for the denouement of the women’s individual competition.
After her spectacular individual victory, against the toughest opponents, she visibly rolls her eyes before facing the mandatory broadcast media in their strict pecking order, and finally dragged by Chaesoon through the throng to sit at a press conference table in the venue media centre next to Lucilla Boari and Elena Osipova, bronze and silver, neither of whom look like they can believe their luck. (Boari is actually smiling). Then the safety net briefly fails; some random journalist who didn’t get the memo asks her a question about what she would say to the people who have insulted her online.
The assembled media – the ones in the know – perk up. The journo stands back, and a smiling volunteer sprays and disinfects the microphone. There is a moment in the air. The Korean coaches look aghast, and one motions towards An as if to say “you don’t have to answer that.”
But almost immediately, in a few clipped words, she answers: “I will not like to talk about anything but the competition and my skills and techniques.” An stares back at the room. Outside of this air-conditioned tent, in the real world, she is becoming the most famous person in her home country that evening.
Not long afterwards, none other than the President of South Korea described her as “the pride of the nation” the same evening, and went as far as to say: “Sometimes we have to fight over expectations and discrimination. Sometimes we only see the results, but every step of the process is never easy.” If it’s a story that the president has got a handle on, it’s a story.
Unravelling the rest of this tale, whatever it actually is, has been more tricky. In Korea, as in many other places, there has been a small sea change in attitudes and a rise in feminism, driven as ever by younger people.
Much of the internet warrior wrath centres on the use of some obscure hashtags. The two phrases that apparently proved some kind of misandry are “ung aeng ung” – an onomatopoeia that meaning unintelligible or nonsensical and “5.5 trillion”, meaning a deliberate exaggeration.
There are many more, and many more people arguing over whether a particular phrase indicates ‘feminism’, or just being a modern person on the internet using neologisms and buzzwords. (The fact that An San went to an all-women’s university has also aroused male suspicion, even if it’s the same archery hothouse institution that Ki Bo Bae and Choi Misun both attended.)
An enormous counter-effort supporting An San against the more knuckle-dragging elements of the internet blew up and furiously phoned the KAA demanding they protect An San, hero of the nation, from all this. Mercifully, she has kept quiet and let everyone else do the talking.
It was an oblique reflection of the key overarching theme of Tokyo 2020, that of the mental health of Olympic athletes; quietly an issue for many decades, and now fully in the mainstream. It touched upon societal changes, the power and reach of social media, the moving of goalposts, and the expectations for public figures.
The biggest story of all from Tokyo 2020 was that of American gymnastics megastar Simone Biles pulling out of multiple events citing mental health issues as well as the ‘twisties’ – essentially the gymnast’s equivalent of target panic, with much more dangerous potential consequences.
That’s right. The biggest story of the Olympics was an athlete choosing not to compete. Nothing else really came close. The predictable reactions from the American media ran the gamut from string-her-up-the-traitor to supporting-you-all-the-way-Simone. It fed the news maw, hungry for the meta-story, even as it frustrated audiences and the networks, expecting a ratings bonanza from the biggest star of all. (Although in gymnastics it allowed a new hero, Sunisa Lee, to emerge.)
We always demand more. And the cycle feeds itself. As the Korean National Press Labor Union put it:
“… there are a lot of articles that the media spread about the current [An San] case as a conflict of opinion. And I want to ask if these articles are really worthwhile as news, and some of the articles posted on the Internet community are not true, but only hate and sarcasm against women and feminism. As these articles became news articles, related posts in the community were amplified even more, and a vicious cycle that quickly led to mass sending of articles citing other hateful remarks occurred, urging the media to pay attention.”
Welcome to 2021, where the real world, the media, and the social media churn in endless depressing loops. There may be more to find out about An San, now examined as closely as any K-pop star for signs and signifiers, every online move future and past scrutinised and discussed. (If you’re interested, try diving into this in translation).
The former president of World Archery, Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone (back when it was still called FITA) described a Korean women’s team who “lived in a sort of convent-like seclusion” after a 1980s World Championship. This is manifestly no longer the case. The only thing that is abundantly clear about An San is that she is a thoroughly modern person; connected, thoughtful, part of society – as much as a professional sportsperson can be.
The tale goes that she insisted on an archery program for girls being started at her school, when it was intended only for boys. Since her international debut in women’s recurve at the Berlin World Cup in 2019 (she won) the immense natural talent was obvious. She also won the Tokyo test event held here in 2019. She was tested harder than any other Korean woman has been tested on the way to the title, and passed.
At every competition, I always have a favourite pic of Dean Alberga’s. This time it came early, at official practice:
The day before the ranking round that would set An San on the path to three golds, it told a tale of handing over, of utter badassery, of the threat of the new girl, of something in the air. It captured something changing. An San would not only destroy the field, she would destroy her teammates too. In a couple of days time Kang and Jang would both also be gold medalists, but by the end of the week, they seemed almost like also-rans. An San turned up and was just cooler than them, and indeed, than pretty much everybody else.
Of course the three of them together were going to win the women’s team event. I wrote a few months ago about the only chance that any other squad – we presumed it would be Chinese Taipei – would have to beat the Koreans, now almost on the longest medal streak in Olympic history. The only way was to be a confident, bulldozing, dangerous second place, terrifying the other side of the bracket. Chinese Taipei’s women, so confident in Den Bosch, simply didn’t show up, qualifying in seventh place. From the ranking round on, you knew it was done. The psychological road was unimpeded. Korea would never be beaten on the stage, but they might conspire to lose it themselves in their heads before going on. That wasn’t now going to happen. The battles were for silver and bronze. When the three Korean women were together, they looked light years ahead of the rest. With the exception of An San, individually, they looked distinctly vulnerable.
Watch again, if you can, the exit of Jang Min Hee of Korea – the most mysterious member of the team – at the hands of Miki Nakamura of Japan, in a strangely vapid second round encounter in a lull in the wearisomely long action on Wednesday.
Jang seems empty, and tense. The wind whirls a little. Hair flies. Nakamura stares into the back of Jang’s head like she is trying to bore a hole in it. The explosive qualities of her shot seemed to have gone. She looked horribly, painfully average. Nakamura wasn’t amazing. But you sensed where it was going from the first set.
What happened? We won’t know. Jang Min Hee walked into the press mixed zone, bowed her head, burst into tears and walked out again. (A reminder: the rules are you have to walk in there at least, although you’re not obliged to actually say anything. But sometimes, you don’t really need to.)
Jang Min Hee – never to be seen again, is my guess. I really wonder if that is the end, if she will be like Choi Hyeonju – popping up out of nowhere, getting the team gold, bombing out of the individuals at the same Games, realising it’s never going to get much better than that, and packing it in. Jang’s deeply weird technique, apparently requiring wrist support (not required when she was a junior) must of course have been good enough to get her onto the team. Against the formal simplicity of An and the strength of Kang, it looked amateurish.
Finally, to Kang “The Destroyer” Chae Young. She never looked comfortable in the individual competition, at any point, even against the relative cannon fodder she had to face the first two times out. She looked pale, wan, and drawn. Her shooting was indifferent. It was obvious that Osipova was going to cause her trouble in the third round. She did. She *ahem* destroyed her.
About a minute after this picture was taken, Kang also broke down in tears and was helped out by her coaches. Not happy then. I mean, she even looked pretty unhappy when facing the Korean media, as the usual conquering heroes, at Incheon airport on the journey home:
Perhaps to the women’s team, the gold is considered manifest destiny, something you get merely for showing up. The real competition is for the individual gold; the one that may see you elevated to the pantheon of Korean archery goddesses. (The goddesses that were not only watching, but commentating.)
I was also genuinely intrigued to find out along the way that all three of the women’s team this year apparently identify as Buddhists – as well as Kim Je Deok.
Around a quarter of the Korea population are Buddhists, and around 70 of the 237 athletes going from Korea identified as such. You think you know these people, even a little. You don’t know them at all.
It began with bureaucracy, shuffling documents in a long, brightly-lit airline terminal at Haneda airport.
A three hour process, politely coerced from station to station across echoing halls, sleepily handing over document after document proving you are who you say you are and you are free from the plague, smiling faces behind masks, computers tapped, small bows from helpful volunteers, all the machinery of overmanned Japanese protocol and administration.
Journalists are used to writing about the interface between the Games and the host city, ruminating on how welcoming the local public might be, and being free to flaneur about the place and be impressed or unimpressed about what has been laid on for the Big Dance.
This year, as soon as you stepped off the plane, it was made abundantly clear to the media and all other overseas visitors that their freedom had taken a back seat to public health concerns. This didn’t stop certain myopic outlets whining at length at the appalling disrespect that one of their team had been confined to quarters for a close contact:
The reason why they aren’t the ‘Coronavirus Games’, then or now or after, is because the Japanese government came up with a vast and complicated solution to the problem– in fact, a pioneering effort as to how to keep something like this safe in the future. And it worked. It doesn’t stop the whining beforehand, including the British race walker who complained about the ‘prison-like’ conditions and the food in Sapporo, a few hundred miles north. He ended up placing a disastrous 25th, but not before being widely mocked by Japanese Twitter users, with comments including “We’re not going to be lectured to by a Brit about shit food.”
Every day, we spit into a tube. We then hand it to someone unlucky enough to have the role of ‘Covid Liason Officer’, gathering the group’s sputum. They then hand off to some poor bugger who will take charge of hundreds of tubes of spit and eventually take them to a lab somewhere where some kind spit-dipper will check tens of thousands of us, the closest link, for the plague. Every one of the 13 days I am in Tokyo, I am tested for coronavirus, for free. (The three days of testing required beforehand to let me into the country cost £240, and the pointless unsupervised Day 2 / Day 8 tests I have to do on returning to the UK cost £160).
I also have to take my temperature every day beforehand for two weeks, which I do dutifully, and take it again every day when I am in Japan, all of which has to be entered into an app on my phone on pain of a furious reminder from the Covid Liason Officer. This app also forces you to answer a number of questions, which are easier to breeze past, even if expressing the required millilitres of gob into the tube never gets more enjoyable.
The rest of the COVID precautions are less intrusive; a gun temperature check to enter the breakfast wing of the hotel, several mandatory squirts of hand sanitiser here and there, and of course, wearing masks everywhere at all times. Pretty much everyone I see, press, staff and athletes happily complies – except for a very well-known older member of the Italian archery delegation who has his mask perpetually round his chin, even on the TV footage. (Just once, I headed downstairs from my hotel room to the vending machine on the fifth floor and forgot my mask, only realising once I’d got there. On my way back, I only saw one other person, a Japanese lady, who scurried past me with alarm in her eyes. I’m still feeling bad about it now.)
Our hotel, for its part, has instituted a kind of apartheid system for its overseas guests. We eat breakfast in one of two echoing ballrooms, our tables spaced off with perspex. Japanese guests eat in the restaurant. The hotel has a pool and a gym and various other amenities; all of which are off-limits to the Olympic gaijin. The hotel bar shuts at 7pm each night by government edict, long before we get back from the venue.
Apart from the lobby, in the hotel we don’t mix with anyone – not even ourselves. Dinner in the evening is a lonely meal ordered via an app, picked up at the front door, and eaten in the hotel room.
Uber Eats has been one of the big hospitality beneficiaries of Tokyo. The app is in English, but most of the menus are not, so ordering anything other than pizza requires a laborious process of screenshotting a hopeful looking menu and running it through the camera function on Google Translate.
Eventually, someone brings round food on a bike. It’s still telling me their names. Thank you Hirohito. Thank you Tetsuo. No, thank you, Yamato. Yes, I will press this button and you will get a tip. The constant stream of bike couriers bearing takeaways combined with the language barrier means that one night, starving, I get back to my room and realised I have picked up someone else’s order. I take it straight back down and tell the concierge and hope someone didn’t go hungry that night.
We are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything. We are not allowed to walk down the street, go into a shop or order a drink. We eat, sleep and do our jobs. Even as, for the world’s media, the world is changing. Half a million people like An San’s Instagram post on her gold medal within an hour. She’s good enough to tell stories on her own:
Media, including the sacred broadcast footage, is violently respun into memes and jokes, which get more eyeballs than the actual competition in many countries. The social media whirl doesn’t reflect talent or results though: An San’s pile of followers pales besides Valentina Acosta, the well-connected ‘influencer’ archer from Colombia, who managed to gain 1.6 million followers, a 600% increase, during the Olympics without winning a single match.
It’s also clear that there is considerable duplication of media work; many technical roles are undemanding, and digital changes mean that a lot of media gathering could be very different indeed – and handled with considerably fewer people onsite. And increasingly, the athletes are telling the stories themselves, and the gatekeepers and intermediaries are less powerful. We’re here, but do we need to be?
The biggest crime of all: no spectators. What a beautiful, beautiful field. What a well-considered, tidy expanse of sporting venue, with a wide promenade deck at the back, twenty feet up, that looked like something off a fancy ship. The Yumenoshima Park finals arena was easily the greatest Olympic archery venue yet, perhaps bar the minimal beauty of the Panathenaic Stadium. As part of the ‘look’, the careful branding that all Olympic venues go through and designed to show up behind athletes for any particular camera angle, the upper part of the temporary stand seemed to rise up at the corners, almost like a classical bit of Japanese architecture.
For a temporary structure, made mostly of scaffolding, it surpassed its function. It felt like somewhere permanent, even if it was only a place of brief communion, with athletes, officials and volunteers all scuttling about in a borrowed space trying to put on the big show; and the coaches and journos and photographers all sneaking off and finding their special secret spot to have a smoke.
I wrote before the Games on the strange and hypocritical decision to not have spectators, even as other Japanese sports venues continued to let them in. It was manifestly clear that there was all-but-zero risk to a masked, well-spaced, well-marshalled audience in an outdoor venue like this. Although, I can understand that perhaps the situation was less clear a few months out, and deciding to fill Olympic venues on a case-by-case risk assessment basis would have been a nightmare on many fronts.
The other joy was that we were actually in a park, built by the water on a vast pile of decades of Tokyo’s rubbish, with greenery and trees to absorb some of the ferocious heat. The continuous background noise generated by the cicadas, that pudgy, noisy insect, was only just inaudible on the TV coverage. For everybody there, it was a continuous white-noise reality. Cicadas like to scream at the hottest part of the day. Like this:
On the branches, they were well camouflaged. An unluckier one I found on the ground revealed an absolutely exquisite golden wing structure, like a piece of fancy jewellery.
Japan cheer politely, enthusiastically. I’m in the spectator stands for Furukawa’s bronze, and it’s polite applause all the way. Not even a ‘whoo’. I’m also in the stands for Osipova vs An, and three Russians are making as much noise as a twenty strong Korean delegation put together. A masked Galsan Bazarzhapov bangs the metal floor of the stand with an umbrella and his foot hard enough that the whole thing shakes. Almost like there’s malice there.
One of those Russians was my favourite champion of all, Ksenia Perova, who after her final individual match walks off without entering the mixed zone, looking pissed off. She is returned to do her mandated press duties by Vladimir Esheev (bronze medal, 1988) and proceeds to open up fully. In a quiet, halting voice, she says:
I like shootoffs. They give me an adrenaline rush, and I feel the growth of responsibility. Today, it wasn’t successful because I couldn’t handle the mental pressure because the opening is very strong. She put a lot of effort into this. And I think she deserves to go to the final round and I will be rooting, not only for our team members but also for her.
Three minutes ago, everything ended for me. And now I feel relief and I’m very tired, and I cannot think about anything except going home and meeting my family.
The preparations for this Olympics were very long and not easy. I had problems with my shoulder and I overcame so many things to to perform here. So now I can thing only about relaxing. I have plans to take a vacation. I haven’t been home since we 3rd of March. That’s why I want to go home. I have a daughter, a husband, relatives. They are very supportive. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. They respect my choice. They don’t say anything bad. They cheer me up.
Are you going to quit? “I’m 32 years old, I haven’t decided completely, but I’m thinking about that. I’m taking a break, then I’ll decide what I’m gonna do. I need to take a rest after five years of work. Paris? I don’t I don’t know. I don’t have certain plans for that. My shoulder is a problem. I’ll look at the pros and cons. It’s not only my decision but also my team.”
(Given that I once asked the Russian women’s team ‘who was in charge?’ and they all nervously pointed at Perova, this comment is perhaps not 100% accurate.)
“I’m doing this from when I was 11 years old and I cannot imagine doing anything else. You imagine yourself beyond the sport. This is my life, archery for many many years, and I don’t have any other business. So if I started something else, I would need to start from the beginning.”
Are you happy with how it has gone? “Yes, I think it was successful. I’ve been working at it for five years, I had all the problems with my health so that’s why I thought I wouldn’t even get to the Olympic Games because at one point I couldn’t even draw the bow. I have suffered and endured all the preparations to get to Tokyo. That’s why I am satisfied with the results. ”
“I don’t feel any regrets. I don’t feel an emptiness that I lost, like I used to feel before when I really wanted to win. The silver in the team rounds gave us some confidence that we could compete with the Koreans. I love the Russian gymnastics team, they’re from Yekaterinburg, so I’m rooting for them. I had goosebumps watching them, because they did such a great job. The ROC wins because it has such strong athletes.”
There is much to say about disappointment, and the darkness that comes at the end of an Olympic cycle. However much you know how well you did or didn’t do, however much your peers and your coaches and your federation know how well you did, the world sees only one thing: medals. Alejandra Valencia brought back a bronze medal to Mexico, one of just a handful the country won. As the plane landed, they let her in the cockpit and gave her a water cannon salute. One or two fractionally better arrows than someone else, and you get a water cannon salute. Because medal. It’s not fair. (It’s not. It really isn’t.)
“I don’t think I deserve to lose. Yeah, I was just unlucky against my rival and she’s really good. And when I look at the group, my group was the hardest. I just can’t understand why it’s happening like this.”
As to what impact archery made; it looked better on the TV than it did in Rio, that’s for sure; cleaner, tighter, great shots, better background. OBS seemed to have upped their game across all sports. But archery was a pretty minor part of the wider Olympic narrative this time, especially with four of the five golds going in the usual direction.
To the rest of the world, Korea won again, even if the undercard fights kept the archery cognoscenti interested and the men’s title went way off script. Archery did its thing, while the rest of the world’s attention was on Simone Biles and a lady crying on a horse. Even An San barely got mentioned in the write-ups afterwards, although someone decided to add her to this boss poster for France 2024:
The problem.. isn’t so much the Games as the series of bewildering events currently masquerading as “reality”. In the middle of which the Olympics is somehow still happening, and happening in a way that takes us pretty much off the map.
Barney Ronay, The Guardian
The Japanese public, for their part, seemed to gradually warm to the event, helped by an avalanche of home team medals across multiple sports right from the off. The host nation always does well at a home Games (just automatically qualifying for every sport has more to do with it than you might think), but even Japan sometimes seemed surprised at just how well they were doing against the usual big beasts.
Press photos show the Japanese public peering into venues through fences, not invited to the party that they paid for. Absolutely everybody I met was courteous and welcoming, without exception.
The successful execution has to be measured against a backdrop of massively rising COVID cases in Tokyo and the rest of Japan (as of this writing), even if it seems increasingly clear that this is not directly connected to the Olympics. The Delta variant is not interested in local political concerns and all variants have apparently been held at bay by the massive system designed to insulate the overseas contingent from the Japanese public. It’s clear that the Olympics was not a ‘super-spreader event’, despite that phrase being parroted by dozens of moronic journalists in the buildup. In the end there were 430 positive cases within the bubble, but almost all of them were Japanese residents; volunteers and contractors. The wall had held, and then some.
What seems more reasonable to blame on the Olympics is the bad example set by insisting on it going ahead; and having thousands of people pitch up and TV screens full of athletes hugging. The Dominic Cummings effect; if they’re doing it, why can’t we? Tokyo is particularly weary of lockdowns, and there were plenty of pics of packed bars in Shibuya and Shinjuku ignoring the bafflingly voluntary ‘state of emergency’ measures. (The classic cool Tokyo bar: small, tightly packed, smoky and low-ceilinged seems custom-designed to spread airborne viruses.)
Much has been made of the supposedly immutable Japanese cultural norms that emphasise the group over the individual, and how this has helped the country and the COVID figures during the pandemic. But these norms are changing; people, especially in cities, now seem more willing to step out of line. Among younger people in particular, the Japanese social contract is fragmenting. If we can have an Olympics, why aren’t I allowed a drink after work?
The wider impact will be felt in due course. For the all-important American TV ratings, it was a disaster for NBC, the US host broadcaster. The average ratings for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is about half of what the 2016 Rio Olympics brought in and barely a third of the viewers that watched London 2012. NBC were forced to give away advertising space for free to clients, to make up the viewership shortfall.
The 13-hour time-zone difference between Tokyo and the East Coast did not help, nor did the programming being fractured across a bewildering variety of channels. The lack of Simone Biles, who was expected to smash events night after night for a week, but of course decided not to, didn’t help viewing figures either, nor did the early bath for tennis superstar Naomi Osaka or the non-appearance of basketball star LeBron James, among others.
In the UK, the rights deal with Discovery+ / Eurosport, despite being made over five years ago, caught out sports fans who were expecting the full panoply of red-button sports on the BBC, which only had sub-licensed rights this time around. The BBC was restricted to just two live sports at any one time, and focused almost exclusively on GB medal chances, for which it was criticised.
Despite this, it looks like this split model may be here to stay, as the viewing figures were healthy for the BBC with significantly reduced costs. Apparently around a third of homes had some Eurosport access as part of various packages with Sky and others. But there was no question about who had the bigger reach: the men’s 100m final attracted 5.1 million TV viewers on the BBC, but just 100,000 tuned into Eurosport 1, according to BARB figures.
It seems increasingly likely that if you want your wideband fill of the Games in the future, you will have to fork out for Eurosport, and in the UK, the chances of you catching archery on free-to-air TV, or indeed anything where there isn’t a significant British medal chance, is not good. Your chances of seeing a smaller sport and thinking “I’d like a go at that”, are vanishing fast.
Finally, it’s a long-established journalistic tradition to try and nail down the ‘meaning’ of the Olympics. Sure, I’ll give it a go. Broadly, it was a Games that held a mirror up to the times, rather than set an agenda for the future like Tokyo 1964; the symbolic Games of a nation emerging from post-war destruction to take its place in the world.
Of course, Japan didn’t need to emerge into the world in 2021; it is the fourth largest economy on the planet and its technology and culture are found in every corner of the globe. It was hoping instead to be a ‘Games of reconstruction’, after the Fukushima disaster. Instead, they ended up with… something else. The damned if they do, damned if they don’t Olympics, maybe.
The relentless media cycle shone an uncomfortable light on some sports, such as the grotesque incident in the modern pentathlon competition where the randomly-assigned horse for a leading competitor refused to jump for its rider, and was then apparently punched by a coach. Endlessly repeated and repackaged, you could sympathise with both rider and horse, but then ask: Why is this ludicrous, possibly cruel sport even in the Olympics anymore? (Modern pentathlon has long been considered to be first in line for removal from the Games, perhaps this was the death blow.)
Ren Hayakawa, the naturalised Japanese Olympic archer who was born and raised in South Korea, said that unlike her older sister who represented Japan in archery at Beijing, she had never experienced discrimination. Hayakawa competed in Tokyo, and won a medal with the Japanese team at London 2012. She told Asahi Shinbum this, which kind of raises other questions:
“In the early days when I competed against South Koreans, I felt really lost and felt pressure. But whenever that happened, my coach would tell me ‘You are doing well. And you are Japanese.’”
There was a lot of focus on stories with LGBTQ+ athletes, including our very own Lucilla Boari, who came out, somewhat unexpectedly, to the Italian media after winning individual bronze. She is not the only gay archer in the professional archery peleton, but she’s certainly the first one to come out at an Olympic Games. It’s perhaps interesting that she felt she was in an atmosphere comfortable enough to do so.
Tokyo 2020 rubbed up against a changing world. Newer stars. Younger. Stranger. More connected. More diverse. Not necessarily fitting into conventional sports star boxes. Sharing gold medals, even. Athletes have emerged from the industrial pressures of Big Sport to decide what their priorities are, and they were led there by the biggest star of all. And all this in spite of a pandemic, and all swirled up by an off-axis, time-shifted news cycle and social media, complete with fake news.
Entire eras had also changed. The men’s 100m final was won by… an Italian. The tonal changes from the Usain Bolt era were remarkable. It felt completely different.
Who knows, perhaps the 100m is done in some way, the idea of male sprinting power as some kind of register of basic human worth a little absurd, foolish, boomer-ish, old hat… Every 100m race is run against the past to some degree, those glorious, tarnished shadows. And right now that history feels a little distant, a place of juiced-up times and a single outlandish talent. Probably this was always a dream, or at least, never quite the thing it was made to be.
Barney Ronay, The Guardian
Many things, in the glaring, empty light seemed a little bit much. The immense expense, the concrete contracts, the years of effort for just two weeks of action, it all felt a little like something of the past. Wisely, Tokyo 2020 lacked a grandiose opening and closing ceremony, choosing a relatively simple, procedural-focused routine going both in and out. There was no sense of grand finale. It was done, and the IOC and the politicians and the federations and the public all breathed a sigh of relief.
If there was a theme; it was ‘it was tough, but we did it.’ We survived. We got through it. Pandemics, Olympic cycles. We did it, and oh yeah, everything has changed now. Things are different. The Olympics won’t ever quite be the same again.
As for our thing, I got to see it. I got to walk around. I got to watch. It was, for an archery fan, a position of almost unimaginable privilege. I didn’t feel like a journalist anymore. Sorry I couldn’t tell all the stories. There wasn’t room.
I hope I brought you a few fragments of what it was like. It was a competition that deserved more people saying ‘I was there’. Because there was still some magic in the air.
Arigato to all the people who helped me get to Tokyo, and helped me when I was there.
As athletes start arriving in Toyko, perhaps you can spare a tiny thought for this man; Kazunori Takishima, who has an Olympic dream of setting a world record of attending the most Olympic events ever. He had spent nearly $40k on a hundred Tokyo 2020 tickets, saving and scheming for years. Of course, he now can’t go to any of them:
And nor can anyone else. Because, on the 8th July a committee decided that no-one would be allowed to attend any Olympic events without accreditation. At a stroke, it destroyed the last hope that this Games would be any kind of ‘normal’. Without fans, it reinforces the feeling that this Games is a contractual obligation. It also risks turning off the casual Olympics fan whose eyeballs ultimately pay for the whole thing via the TV advertising and broadcast revenue.
Numerous large scale outdoor sporting events have taken place this spring and summer without (apparently) spiking coronavirus cases; the Superbowl, Wimbledon and the European Championships to name but a few (although given the scenes at Wembley on Sunday, the jury is probably still out on what virus-spiking damage a nearly full stadium of Brits can do).
Other sporting events in Japan are going ahead with spectators. J-League football matches are going ahead in other parts of Japan, and playoffs apparently continue throughout the Games. One of the major Sumo tournaments is going on right now, as of this writing, in Nagoya – in a numbers-restricted indoor arena. Another major sumo championships is scheduled for Tokyo in September.
Baseball is going ahead right now, and a situation has arisen with well-known Dominican-Japanese hitter Cristopher Mercedes, who plays for Tokyo team Yomiuri Giants, and who has been named to the Dominican Republic team for the Olympic Games. You can go and see him play with his team in Tokyo this season, but you can’t go and see him play for his country at the Olympics, down the road in Yokohama, in a week or two.
The blanket ban on spectators at all venues seems like it need an explanation, but the organisers would only say that it was a ‘very special’ situation, where crowds would be expected to both socialise and congregate afterwards. This is apparently on the recommendation of the government’s public health adviser Dr. Omi, although the full reasons remain opaque:
Increasingly, it feels like the Japanese government are holding the event at arms length. Opinion polls have consistently shown the public is deeply concerned about holding the games, and a loud media seems to continually suggest that they are inviting people from all over the world to bring variants of the coronavirus to their islands. (The incredibly draconian policies developed to stop this happening do not appear to have made it to the front pages, and a current estimate suggests that 80-90% of the overseas visitors to Japan will be vaccinated, as opposed to around 25% of the Japanese population. It seems to have led to awkward situations like this one.)
The Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga’s handling of the pandemic (including a now-famously slow vaccination rollout) has eroded his public support, and there are leadership races and an election imminent. The government had long seen the Olympics as a chance to display Japan’s recovery from the devastating 2011 earthquake and nuclear crisis. With a pandemic still raging and Japan ‘holding the baby’, it almost feels like it has decided to get the whole thing out of the way as quietly and painlessly as possible with as much support as it can muster.
It should be noted that Monday on Japanese Twitter, the phrase, “Anyone but LDP or Komeito” was trending, referring to voting for any political parties other than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party or their coalition partner, the Komeito, in the coming parliamentary election. It seems that few of the Japanese public are happy about how this year has turned out, but this is where we are at.
The prospect of a ‘ghost’ Games in Tokyo is a dramatic and dark turn in the history of the event. Full venues have been at the centre of all the iconic moments in Olympic history, and who knows what is around the corner.
The Korea Archery Association continues their all-out social media assault; this time forcing the six Olympic athletes through media training, and, for some reason, filming it. All of them look like they’d rather be pulling out their toenails that doing it.
The same video is notable for coach Park Chaesoon’s extraordinary mask chains, which give him an unexpectedly cyberpunk look. Hey, if it works for him. (Lots of other interesting videos here)
An interesting documentary for Olympics fans is coming out in a few days, retelling the story of the ‘Oriental Witches’ of the 1964 Games; one of the canonical tales from that competition. It looks well worth a look:
According to their data, 9% of British adults will place some kind of wager on the Olympics. (I make that around 4.5 million people. Seems like a lot.) Of that number:
Punters appear to be most likely to bet on events such as track and field (49%), football (49%), boxing (31%), tennis (28%), and gymnastics (20%). Other events that will draw gamblers include swimming (18%), basketball (15%), cycling (15%), badminton (8%), diving (7%), weightlifting (6%), table tennis (6%) and volleyball or beach volleyball (6%), archery (3%) and baseball (3%).
Three percent? I crunch that as 135,000 UK adults will be betting on the archery during the Games? Really? If you’re planning on sticking some money down, let me know…
“A total of 78,000 people are expected to enter Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This would include 59,000 people for the Olympics, compared to the expected 180,000 from last year. The number will include 23,000 Games-related officials, including from the International Olympic Committee and International Federations. Olympic Broadcast Services representatives and rights-holders account for 17,000 people during the Olympics, with 6,000 members of the media expected. Around 19,000 people are expected for the Paralympic Games, including 9,000 officials, 4,000 for broadcast and 2,000 media.”
That’s a lot of people who you hope have all passed their tests, had their jabs, and not picked up any ‘rona on the plane. But as with the unfortunate guys from Uganda last time, it at least proves that so far the system is working, even if the goal is essentially to isolate the Games as far from the Japanese public as possible.
“The people of Japan must not see us as an enemy bringing coronavirus,” Merlo said today at an event marking World Sports Journalists Day.
“We are coming not to destroy, but to bring a message of hope.
“The big danger is that this kind of campaign is putting the foreigners going there as infectors so people will be afraid of us and this can sometimes cause us a problem.”
Merlo described some of the measures as “the most crazy instructions we have had in our lives”.
“It is important we begin to discuss with the organisers in a kind way, because we understand their mind, we understand how difficult it is for them but we have to find a solution together, if possible a human solution because I cannot believe that the hospitality of Japan is this way.
“It is a special occasion but we are not at war.”
Journalists travelling to the Olympics Games will be confined to hotels for the first three days and restricted to a carefully ordained itinerary for the first 14.
“In some ways we are exactly a kind of prisoner at home,” Claimed Merlo.
He also warned: “In some ways, they are asking the population of Japan to spy on everyone.
“This is not acceptable.”
The Tokyo 2020 organisers have also delayed making a decision on whether spectators will be allowed in venues, pending COVID data. (The decision was originally scheduled for today.) There was a plan for a lottery system todetermine which ticketholders can attend the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as well as sessions in eight sports (not including our thing). Some have suggested up to 40% of sessions would not have spectators. It is not clear which sports will get shafted.
The decision followed the easing of state of emergency measures, with the Japanese Government allowing sporting events to be held with capacities limited to either 50 per cent or a maximum of 10,000 people – but we’re not out of the woods yet. A Games without any spectators whatsoever will be a difficult sell both to the stakeholders and the rest of the world.
The Netherlands Sjef van den Berg has confirmed previous hints that he is set to retire after Tokyo 2020, citing ongoing medical issues and a general dissatisfaction with the life of a professional archer.
As he told World Archery:
Sjef is relatively young to knock the professional sport on the head, although there are quite a few older archers in the peloton who seem likely to be making this Games their last.
New Zealand also returned their single women’s place, a few weeks after returning their single men’s place. If they’re not going to send their athletes to the Games, why do they even send them to qualifying competitions that award places? Seems like a recipe for bad feeling all-round.
The wider world of Olympic sport was much more focused on the one-month ban handed out to US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for testing positive for cannabis at the US Olympic trials and the banning by FINA of the Soul Cap for Olympic competition – currently under review, apparently. (The Soul Cap is legal for competition in England and elsewhere). Both of them touch on much wider, more complicated issues, and are exactly the sort of thing that needs to be faced directly if the Olympic movement is not to start losing goodwill all over the world.
While the Aussie Olympic committee has backed him, for me, this smacks of an insult to other Australian Olympians (and indeed, all others) who might have worked their entire lives to make a Games and represent their country. With tennis, an Olympic gold is broadly considered the equivalent to winning a Grand Slam title – but no more than that. The Olympics is just a thing that happens and you don’t get paid for in the lucrative professional tennis world.
Whatever will transpire in Tokyo, the sporting competition will still be the Olympics, and will still – we all hope – be the best in the world versus the best in the world. The wider circus, much diminished, will be a lesser part of it this time around, and there will be less people to flatter the egos of people like Nick Kyrgios. (In Rio, several golfers pulled out citing the damp squib that was the Zika threat, pouring fuel on the fire of opinion that states that if the Olympic isn’t the pinnacle of your sport (like archery) then it probably shouldn’t be there.)
Krygios isn’t not the only tennis player to give Tokyo the swerve. Serena Williams has pulled out without giving reasons (although they are thought to be related to her being unable to bring her family), and Rafael Nadal has also pulled out, citing the need to extend his career. (The courts in Tokyo are hard and fast DecoTurf, and wouldn’t suit his game very well. If Rafa can keep going until Paris 2024, he might just be fit enough to play at the courts in Roland Garros, long the site of his greatest successes). So perhaps the secret is just… keeping your mouth shut?
For Tokyo medals, they have promised her two crore for gold (about £200k), one crore for silver (£100k) and 75 lakh for bronze. (£72k). All about them Benjamins.
And Kang Chae Young(for it is she) put in an 698 in practice (six points above the world record, set by her in 2019). Although the web community was pretty critical of the way she filled out her scorecard. 🤣
Three weeks until the ranking round begins (oh, and a little something called the opening ceremony) – time for a round up of everything that has appeared in the last week.
Pics via KAA
The KAA shared photos of the training venue they have set up at the national Olympic sport centre in Jincheon. As with several previous Olympics they have built a kind of facsimile of the finals arena for their charges to train on. The enormous expense this must have entailed gives an idea of the resources that go into protecting the biggest South Korean Olympic medal ‘banker’ of all. It obviously makes for good, very visual publicity for the NOC as well.
Although I was also wondering: is it really worth it? If you’re that good, shouldn’t you be able to turn up to any field and deliver the goods? I guess this piece of theatre has worked so far, so they are hoping it will work again. And they can practice against each other; let’s face it, the chances of them having to compete against each other in the last three rounds are pretty high. This year, they seem to have skipped the traditional ‘training in a baseball stadium‘ which characterised previous buildups. Maybe they’ve avoided some of the more tedious publicity work this time round.
Did you know you can donate directly to help Japanese athletes? If you use Visa, they’ll match it. I suppose I wasn’t expecting Japanese sports to be funded quite so directly.
Perhaps more NOCs should have the digital begging bowl out. Over at Team GB, they seem to prefer you buy something from the gift shop. I mean, these T-shirts are pretty boss:
They also have an ‘Archery’ T-shirt, with an extremely abstract design on the front. I guess it’s supposed to be a sight:
Despite a high-profile announcement re: spectators – the plan was to cap venue attendance at 50% of capacity or 10,000 – whichever is the greater – there now seems to still be a threat of holding the whole thing behind closed doors. The impact on archery wouldn’t be too great, the impact on the athletics stadium (capacity 68,000) will be enormous.
There will apparently be a final decision on Monday. This is on the back of mixed news re: COVID in Japan. A vaccination programme has finally started gaining momentum, although the famed ‘Delta variant’ seems to be going around already. Once it’s in, it’s not getting out. The worrying case of an athlete from Uganda testing positive on arrival in Japan, after apparently passing a COVID test and being fully vaccinated, is either an outlier or a worrying harbinger of what is to come in the next few weeks, as 60,000 or so athletes, journos, technicians, broadcasters, judges, coaches and federation wonks begin to descend on Tokyo. This bell-end isn’t helping, either. There was also some more news about beer and condoms.
Yahoo News! shared a piece detailing the privations that journalists will have to face when reporting from Tokyo; broadly, you’re not allowed to go anywhere or do anything at all, on pain of having your accreditation revoked and/or being thrown out of the country – not even walking. This will be enforced by a tracker app on your phone:
Daniel Castro has been selected for the single men’s spot for Spain. A lot of people thought that Pablo Acha would be going, as he is, y’know, the new European Champion, but apparently the selection was based on World Cup placings. Castro paid a lengthy tribute to Acha, and several other people on Facebook, which is a lovely read in translation.
There has been a softening of the policy that forbade athletes to take young children “when necessary” to Tokyo. This is of course far too late to help the relevant parents and children, including Naomi Folkard, who had already made extensive plans:
National Olympic kits are being revealed, if they haven’t been already. I usually enjoy the quadrennial fashion sniping – and the apparently post-ironic Canadian kit needs discussing – but there’s something I really like about the South African kit. It looks so casual, and so.. normcore. It represents what a lot of us have been doing for a year: lounging around. It doesn’t feel the need for a grandiose national statement. It’s very on brand for right now.
With the final, semi-dignified scramble for archery places in Paris complete, the recriminations can begin. The three-day qualifier ended up awarding 14 women’s places and 16 men’s places, with the last individual places scrapped out among the smaller archery nations and the handful of big ones who had come up empty-handed in one column. The men’s individual qualifier tournament was eventually won by the bear-like figure of Galzan Bazarzhapov, a man with such presence it seemed surprising he hadn’t simply willed himself onto the Games bill already. The women’s was won by the surprise finalist of Guatemala, the intimidatingly-named Madalina Amaistroaie of Romania. Both might be worth backing for a longshot podium place in Tokyo if they can maintain the level. It’s always a huge if.
The team competitions on Saturday and Sunday saw the USA men’s and women’s teams go through. Brady Ellison, probably still the favourite for the Paris World Cup event that begins tomorrow, opened the week by telling Fortune magazine that he had decided not to get vaccinated, and then, surprisingly, was perhaps the only USA man to produce a single really bad shot in competition. The USA women were perhaps less favoured to go through, but somehow edged out Turkey in a match that came down to literally a single millimetre.
The Indian women’s team, despite a chart-topping qualification from Deepika Kumari, went down against Colombia, putting a plug in a relentless series of hype pieces in the Indian media and starting a different, familiar torrent of snippy diatribes about three women who simply Should Have Done Better. Given they failed to get through in Den Bosch because of a minor technical problem with one archer which sunk the boat, hyping them up as the team to beat was always a bad idea.
No archery nation on earth puts such media pressure on their archers to live up to an essentially impossible ideal, no archery nation on earth has such an impossibly chaotic administration for the international sport, and it’s always, always dumped on the women – going back a long way. (Note that India is the worst G20 country in which to be a woman).
To be honest, the draw wasn’t kind and if India had got past Colombia they would have had to have faced either France or Spain (in the end, Spain). It was a big ask. Kumari seems to have developed a thicker skin in the last few years, luckily. If she finishes, as she may well do, off the podium in Tokyo and without a team to hide behind, she will certainly need it.
Italy avoided a catastrophe as their women’s team just scraped through in the last-chance match on Sunday, after the men’s team gave a distinctly lacklustre performance to go down to a well-organised but unfancied Indonesia, who deserved their team spots. After Italy left empty-handed from Rio – when a minimum two medals would have been expected – not sending a full team from one of the largest archery behemoths points perhaps to some difficulties somewhere down the line. Mauro Nespoli looked uncomfortable in the talismanic anchor role. Italy lost their way in Paris. The women only just found their way out again.
There were many other losers from which much more was expected. The German men’s team, going out to a patchy Ukraine. The Russian men’s team – missing for a second Olympics in a row. The French women, who seemed to have engaged the force field repelling arrows from the gold.
Of course, none of these teams have or will have faced any of the three biggest Asian teams in competition this year before Tokyo, and who knows what will happen when they do. The Asia Cup this year was essentially a domestic Korean competition which invited Japan and Bangladesh along for some company, and didn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about Korea – except perhaps half a hint that Kang Chae Young might not be the strong individual favourite. There is little to no data on how good China or Chinese Taipei are this year, although we know they are probably up to the task.
China probably underperformed last time out in Rio, and arguably Chinese Taipei too. Individually Taipei should have been pushing a round or two further, and the women’s team should really have been facing the ladies in white in the final, not the semi. (Lei Chien Ying was the weak link of the team back in 2016). By the final, Korea basically knew they’d got it, only having to get past a very patchy Russia.
Still, the Chinese Taipei women, who conquered Korea in Den Bosch and a few years before that at the Universiade in 2015, remain, in my opinion, the only team capable of beating Korea – and it won’t happen in the semi-final.
The way Taipei are going to beat Korea is by qualifying the team in second (not fourth, like in Rio) and absolutely destroying their side of the bracket, by being organised and looking sharp and terrifying at every opportunity. Then, when they are all standing waiting to go on for the final, perhaps a tiny nugget of fear might be developing under white hats.
Just imagine. Being the first Korean women’s team to come home with silver. Silver. I mean, it would be better to get knocked out in the first round than come home with team silver. The humiliation.
Yes, I’m speculating. But I got to see the Korean women’s team at the same moment in Rio, and they were nervous. The butterflies were there, if not big ones. They knew they only had to give an average performance. And in the end, it wasn’t spectacular (especially compared to the men’s team), but it was enough. And Russia were pretty bad. Taipei may be much better. And the niggling doubt of Den Bosch may return.
It can get worse. Several people in the know claimed to have seen Choi Misun visibly shaking with nerves in Rio in the individual rounds. Jang Min Hee, the newest and least known member of the Korean women, doesn’t seem to be immune:
All three Korean women are better archers on a technical and athletic level than every other woman who will take the field in Yumenoshima. But that still doesn’t guarantee they are going to win. If they lose it, it will be lost in the wings – not on the stage.
The Tokyo 2020 travails rumble on. I ranted on about the wider issues last time. This time we have problems with several nations – including the UK – who have been marked out with the worst kind of corona lurgy and have to do special measures to be let into Japan. The current document floating around is asking that athletes, officials and press from India have to do seven PCR tests in the seven days before the Games. Seven. In a row. (Never mind that apparently in India there is barely anywhere to even get same day PCR tests done). Travellers from the UK to Japan have to merely produce three negative PCR tests in the three days before they travel – these cost, at my local centre, £130 a go for same-day tests.
The era of dumbass guides to archery at the Olympics has arrived. Check out this one from Reuters. A typical entry in such a field, it finishes a reasonably accurate cribbed technical summary with a speculative load of total bullshit.
It’s 45 days to go before one of the strangest and most beleaguered Olympic Games of our lifetimes takes place.
For 95.5 percent of us, across the globe, watching it on TV is the only way we will ever experience it; just half a percent of the Olympic audience will ever see an Olympic event live. The TV audience is paramount, and the broadcasters have the final say on all kinds of things to do with the Summer and Winter Games.
For many people watching; will it be very different? With the camera angles changed to de-emphasise just how few people are in the venues (exactly how many will be there is still unclear), and crowd noise undoubtedly dubbed on, it will be, for many people, a very similar experience.
The revenue generated from selling the TV rights funds the IOC, and (as the IOC very much like to point out) funds all kinds of Olympic sports too, including much of the operating budget of World Archery and many other national and international federations. Much of the Olympic sporting landscape in the modern era relies on this revenue, and ultimately the Olympics supports an ecosystem hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide.
I don’t need to recount the events of the last 16 or so months; they have impacted every single one of us. The rescheduled Summer Olympics, delayed from 2020, were intended to be held in a world that had brought the COVID pandemic under control. When they were postponed, there was an optimism that Tokyo 2020 would go ahead in some kind of relative ‘normality’. Of course, that’s not the case. The Western world is a shifting mess of lockdowns, vaccination programs, third, fourth and fifth waves of variant viruses, quarantine procedures, strained public health systems, and all the rest that the coronavirus has dragged along with it on its never-ending journey around the well-connected world.
The Olympics ultimately relies on certainty; it’s an (almost) immovable feast. The incredulous full-steam-ahead response as the virus took hold in spring last year was only stopped by the announcement that many major nations would officially not send a squad, beginning the snowball process that led to postponement.
The IOC had good reason to be confident, apparently, the start time of an Olympic event has never moved before, and it has been 76 years since the last cancellation, due to war in 1944. Viruses had threatened before, and been found wanting.
The modern Games is now so big and so complicated and so expensive partly because it is has to begin on a particular date. Most large public projects are not delivered on schedule. The Olympics is, and if one aspect of it is not on track, the only solution is to throw immense amounts of resources at it until it is. Many aspects of Rio 2016, not helped by major budget problems and a general Brazilian disposition to do things at the last minute, were barely finished in time. (The 2016 Paralympics almost didn’t take place at all.)
As of this writing, a narrative has developed in the press that the Japanese government and the IOC are determined to press on with the Games in the teeth of a uncertain pandemic and hugely negative public opinion. Most people have cited a a poll (originally commissioned by newspaper Kyodo News) which showed that 35.3% of people were in favour of cancelling it, and 44.8% were in favour of postponing it once more. (Never mind that postponing it again has been categorically ruled out by all as politically, logistically, and financially impossible.)
This has been conflated by several other media outlets as ‘80% of the Japanese public want Games cancelled.’ Public opinion not being behind the Games beforehand is a distinct feature of the recent Olympic landscape, London 2012 being a prime example. Opinion polls are not a good guide to Olympic futures.
Much of the focus in the Japanese press is the claim that the 60,000 or so athletes, journalists, technicians, broadcasters, judges, coaches and federation people pitching up will be bringing a bunch of coronavirus variants to their islands, turning the Olympics into a superspreader event. Incidentally, this number of ‘essential personnel’ is down from the normal Olympic overseas attendance of around 180,000 – which gives you an idea of just how many hangers-on there normally are.
None of these articles acknowledge the extensive steps being taken to specifically make sure that this is not the case, as detailed in the much-vaunted (but under-promoted) IOC ‘playbooks‘ for all attendees. No one going will be admitted into Japan if they haven’t had two doctor-certified negative COVID tests in the preceding three days. No one going will be allowed to go sightseeing, use public transport, go into a bar or a restaurant, or indeed, do anything apart from go between hotel and venue to work or compete (denied of all overseas revenue, Tokyo’s hoteliers and restauranteurs are unsurprisingly furious and are adding to the cancellation chorus).
The IOC hasn’t covered itself in glory here; sending John Coates, one of its blunter instruments, out to announce that the Games could be held even if Japan was under a state of emergency, which only ramped up the chorus to get rid of it. It seems like a lot of the gung-ho rhetoric from all participants is to not let a single crack appear that might offer the ‘let’s-cancel-it’ gang a way in.
Also, none of the current press articles are also calling for the cancellation of the PGA tour, or Wimbledon, or the football Euros, or the Tour de France, or any of the many other sporting events due to take place this summer. None of them points out the large number of sporting events that have already taken place without incident (none of which is nearly as complex as an Olympics, of course).
But voices as loud as the New York Times have decided to floridly jump on the bandwagon anyway: “The I.O.C. oversees the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructure in the world. The group appears to have fallen under the spell of its own congenital impunity. Pressing ahead with the Olympics risks drinking poison to quench our thirst for sport. The possibility of a superspreader catastrophe is not worth it for an optional sporting spectacle.”
“Were not the Olympics supposed to be a festival of peace? … It begins with tenaciously engaging in dialogue with people who hold diverse views. If we abandon this process, then the Olympics have no meaning.”
“The opposite of peace is a hard-line, stubborn approach based on the view that ‘people may be saying all kinds of things, but once the Olympics start it’ll be fine. What will these Olympics be for and for whom?”
“I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel. It would require too much energy to make and follow through with such a decision. We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now.”
“We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not.”
The problem is that “engaging in dialogue with people who hold diverse views.” is a very reasonable thing to do during the bidding and planning phase of a Games. When the chips are down and you’ve got to execute the operational phase, that’s exactly what you don’t do. It’s such an immense and complicated thing, involving such Brobdingnagian logistics and hundreds of thousands of people, it’s either go or no-go. You’re either helping it to be a safe, successful event, or you’re not.
The big circus that everybody enjoys on their TV every two or four years comes about because of the boring stuff involving spreadsheets and trucks and warehouses and accountants and shipping manifests and scaffolders and electricians and technicians and builders which takes seven years to organise. The die is cast for Tokyo. It’s either fully underway, or not at all. It can’t stop for a friendly chat.
So it’s happening. Personally, I believe it will be safe; not being a public health expert, luckily I don’t have to stake my reputation on it. There are real risks and I don’t want to play down the seriousness of any of them.
But Yamaguchi is right about one thing; in the Faustian pact that the Japanese government has got itself into, something will be missing from the whole thing: who will these Olympics be for?
With just a few weeks to go in Rio, the prediction from all sides was that it would be a disaster, with the blame laid at Brazil’s door. In the end, despite a couple of small mishaps, the Games went ahead as planned, and the TV audiences were healthy. (A huge number of volunteers quit in Rio as well, same as is happening now.) But this situation feels different. It is not business as usual. If the IOC and the Japanese don’t get this absolutely right, it risks the entire circus going into long-term decline, if audiences are turned off.
An announcement was made this week about the podiums, part of the fully overshadowed publicity buildup. A tiny corner of the Olympic design world, made of recycled plastics, it was a representation of the minimalist (if conservative) design style that has characterised these Games, long before coronavirus upended everything. I think they are smart and modern and forward-looking, and normally I love this kind of design minutiae that adds to the flavour of the whole dish. But recycled podiums are not what is needed right now.
Presenting the Victory Ceremony podiums of the Olympic and Paralympic Games! 😍
What is needed right now is to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese and wider public, indeed the whole world. To convince people that they are worth doing. This is going to take some humility on behalf of the IOC and some brilliant PR from the Japanese government. Neither has shown a great deal of aptitude for either of these recently. And there’s only a month and a half left.
The news that Oh Jin Hyek is not just back on the Korean team, but back in an Olympic team, is all-round fantastic.
Not just because a former Olympic champion still has what it takes to make a Games, nine years on from London 2012. It’s less surprising in pro archery generally, where careers are longer. But in Korea you invariably have to fight for that place against multiple world champions; young, hungry, experienced internationals, and that uniquely local product: high-school kids who can shoot you off the park before they even have to shave every day. It’s always a much bigger ask.
It’s a much-quoted cliche (which this writer has been thoroughly guilty of deploying) but the Korean trials are the most difficult recurve tournament(s) in the world. To make the Olympic team, you have to shoot lights out, every single day, over five separate gruelling weeks. Jin Hyek has remained consistently near the top of the standings almost every single day he has been out there. He didn’t sneak in. He didn’t edge it. There have been no doubts about the quality of his performance.
But Oh has found the motivation to push himself through the interminable trials process in the face of excruciating shoulder pain which would have caused lesser men to retire and enjoy their individual Olympic gold (and team bronze). According to him, all four of his rotator cuff muscles are trashed. He was intending to retire in 2020 anyway, so the story goes. One more bite at the cherry. One more go-around.
It’s not so well known, when he wasn’t quite at the international forefront in the mid-2010s, that he almost made the Rio team as well. As quoted in Bow International in 2017:
“During last year’s national team selections [for the Olympics], I just needed an 8 to win the match and make the team. I ended up shooting a 7 and we ended up going to a shoot-off, which I lost in the end. It was terrible, the biggest regret of my life. I was furious. I decided to change my arrow nock and vane colours that I had used from the start and changed some of my equipment setup. I wanted to throw away everything I’d had previously and start again. “
Behind the big grin, a hint at the vicious competitive streak, just like his fellow London 2012 winner – and former romantic partner – Ki Bo Bae. The sense of unfinished business. (He’s been individual second twice in the World Championships, in 2011 and 2013, and has mentioned it more than once.)
He wasn’t always the gritty archery super-heavyweight we know him as, of course. Once upon a time:
“When I was younger, I did archery because it was fun and I just enjoyed shooting. I didn’t have any ambitions. In high school, at a certain point in time, as I began shooting a bit better and won a few medals at national competitions, I started to become a bit more ambitious. I wonder if I would have done better if I had had those ambitions when I was younger. I liked playing with my friends too much when I was younger and if I had done that a little less I wonder if I could have done just a bit better.”
So not one of those hyper-focused athletes then, for whom gold medals are the mere byproduct of executing a perfect plan and a perfect program. The normal guy. Maybe.
But easily the most significant piece of awesome with Oh is his age; he is 39 years old. When he competes in Tokyo, he will be just a couple of weeks shy of his 40th birthday.
The Korean men’s team will be going in as favourites, even if nothing is guaranteed and plenty of teams might upset the apple cart. If he managed to take another gold medal, it would make him the oldest male archery gold medallist in the modern Olympic era, and the oldest medallist since the remarkable achievement of Hiroshi Yamamoto in 2004. (He would not be the oldest of all: Doreen Wilbur was 42 when she won gold in 1972, and Hubert van Innis was 54 when he won an avalanche of medals in Antwerp in 1920).
But just as the victory of Chang Hyejin in Rio destroyed received wisdoms about height and poundage, the career of Oh Jin Hyek has proved that unconventional form and age are no boundaries to the biggest prizes of all.
Ultimately we love Oh because we can project ourselves onto him. An athlete nearing 40 who doesn’t look much like an ‘athlete’. A family man. A fan of chunky gold. (The sort of chunky gold that makes me wonder what he drives.) A man who shoots compound like… this. A man who, shortly after making this year’s Olympic team, for the last time, at the highest level of ability, posted a pic on Instagram of his(?) fridge, packed full of his favourite neatly arranged beer.