Today was supposed to be the Opening Ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics. ESPN senior writer Sharda Ugra, who has covered two Games, walks us through the rush, excitement and emotions of “Day Zero”.
The Biggest City In The World. The Biggest Event In The World. Mixing with the multitudes in Tokyo are those whose moves through air, land and water form our sporting dreamscapes. Starting today. Under other, very different, circumstances.
It’s happening again. That’s the problem with the Olympics. When it’s supposed to be their time, no matter what else happens, it is hard to drive them out of the mind. Even today, when the world undergoes a very big What The Hell that has led to the Games being postponed for the first time since World War II.
Or especially today, July 24 – the scheduled date of the Opening Ceremony. The Games will keep flickering in the imagination.
ETA – Earlier Time Arrivals
To start with, the Olympics don’t even begin when they are officially scheduled to begin – Opening Ceremony day. Olympic football begins two days before the Ceremony, and in Tokyo softball was to have begun in seven other cities. In reality, though, the Olympics begin when you are informed that you will be there, covering the event, expected by your employers to remain as mentally switched on and physically fit as is possible. The run-up to the Games is spent oscillating between hyperventilating, palpitating and cold sweats. This when you, with the activity index of a seaslug, are not even competing.
You are meant to get to the Games a few days before the Opening, to find your bearings. Again, in that Olympics mind-bender, time-travel thing, you are there before you even arrive.
Like at an airport hub, a transit through Dubai heading for Athens ’04. Land in Dubai and the Olympics are already there and you’re in it. Not merely in the omnipresent signage but in clumps of tracksuits around you, from corners of Asia, Africa and across the Pacific Islands. You could swear there was a gold-medal contest to find the right departure gates among the young, energetic, bright-eyed, shiny-faced men and women jabbering in a thousand tongues.
On landing in Athens, a nervous cheer broke out from the athletes on the flight before they were finally separated from us lumpen at immigration. Which, by the way, is a breeze because your Games accreditation is your visa. And your ticket for public transport. Which you don’t use because you’re always early for the media transport because you’re always waking up earlier than is sensible because you so cannot wait for it to begin.
Friday, 5am. It’s always been a Friday, from Atlanta ’96 onwards.
Opening Ceremony Day, no medals on offer. Just a formal, splashy welcome from an already-exhausted host nation and its thousands of organisers, volunteers, ushers, navigators, handypeople, problem-solvers. Day Zero is when etiquette 101 tries to kick in. The volunteers are being so nice, at least learn some basic words in their language. It lasts 24 hours, and at the end, all that is left is pidgin. Today, free-associating these words – xiexie, yassou, ni hao, efkharisto, nihao ma, kalimera, jia yoh – takes me here: Anju-Rathore-LeanderMahesh-LiuXiang-Abhinav-Bolt-Saina-Phelps-Sushil-Phelps-HichamElGuerrouj.
Swimmer Grant Hackett, that Australian gold-medal-winning, long-distance beast, said it best, “There are two things going on here. One is the Olympics and the other is swimming. The swimming is easy, we know how to do that. It is the Olympics that you have to handle.”
Athletes don’t care, but that applies to everyone at a Games. At first, it is the occasion of it, then its scale, its enormity, its genuine globalness (more countries in the IOC than at the UN) and the awareness that you are but the tiniest, most disposable fragment of its many moving parts.
To grasp the idea, know this: the final tally of the number of accreditations handed out for the Rio Olympics (including the workforce before and during the Games) was 222,467. It is more than the population of several competing nations.
Still, who gets up at 5am when the ceremony starts at 8pm and the day won’t end until at least 1am the next day? Like Grant says, it’s not the job per se, it’s the Olympics that test your handling skills. We’re not athletes, anyway, our handling skills are inadequate, we are bound to fail.
Walk Like An Olympian
Day Zero is when the essential Olympics check-list – comfortable footwear, clean socks, the dislocation-free laptop bag shoulder strap – is put through its first round of quality-control testing. As a first-timer, you don’t know better, so frenetic is the mood of the morning. As a second-timer, you’re excited all over again and you get into the Main Press Centre (MPC) by 10:30am instead of 9am, but the pace of the day turns out the same. Frenetic, over-eager, over-anxious. Calling Indian contingent members for updates, while haring about to see the hockey team training plus trying to catch uber-glam swimmers, divers and gymnasts at practice and diving into a superstar’s press conference.
Who needs food or water, right? You’re breathing Olympic air and greedily consuming every sport in sight. Sometime late afternoon, the body throws a tantrum, demanding carbs and sugar. Or else. Not a shot has been fired, not a race has been raced, not a medal has been handed out and even the footballers far away haven’t laughed or cried into their shirts. You are dead on your feet and the opening ceremony is still four hours away.
It had better be bloody good. The trudge from MPC towards the main stadium, home of the dazzle and razzle, is a long one. It always feels even longer because your “comfortable footwear” has already put in plenty of miles on Day Zero itself. The closer you get to the stadium, however, the Games expansively spread the breeziness of the evening, being brought in by the spectators streaming in from other gates. They are all ages, all nationalities, all languages, religions and regions, equally excited being there, most laughing loudly, each with a story to tell. The focus of the local chatter is audible: Who will light the torch? Because that’s always a secret. More importantly, how? Which after the flaming arrow flying through a 1992 Barcelona night and Ali’s quivering hands in Atlanta ’96 must have its distinctive signature.
Tokyo promised us the Recovery Games, using the heritage of its 1964 Olympics venues, blending traditional architecture and the ideals of environmentalism. Fusing Japanese minimalistic finesse with its technological perfection, cedar wood in the eaves of its main stadium eaves and robots to guide spectators to their seats.
Oh well, there’s always next year and Day Zero will come again.