If the Tokyo Olympics Succeed, It Will Have to Be Because of the Content

by nyljaouadi1
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When the general manager of Japan’s Olympic Village first announced the plans for recyclable cardboard beds back in January 2020, it was presented mainly as a win for sustainability. The beds, equipped with high-tech mattresses from Japanese company Airweave that can be customized and sanitized for reuse, do have a slight aura of futuristic cool. But as COVID-19 emerged as an unavoidable part of daily life, disposable products have become synonymous with barely tolerated social distancing and business transactions without any physical contact.

The Olympic Village has long had a reputation for its sexually charged atmosphere, and the media response included some leering about the beds’ effects on “gold-medal celebrations.” It was almost inevitable that the sleeping arrangements would go viral when they feel so reflective of the international mood. Rumors that the beds were a part of a complicated ploy to discourage sexual congress soon emerged, a perhaps inevitable development in the pandemic era. But back in January 2020, the village’s general manager, Takashi Kitajima, reassured the world that the furniture could hold up to vigorous activity. “Those beds can stand up to [about 440 pounds],” he said, according to the AP. “They are stronger than wooden beds…. Of course, wood and cardboard would each break if you jumped on them.”

While the timeline makes it clear that the accommodations were not intended as a post-COVID mood killer, the organizing committee really does want athletes to avoid having sex—and all “unnecessary forms of physical contact.” The village will distribute about 150,000 condoms, a third as many as the 2016 Rio Games, but the committee hopes that visitors will regard them as souvenirs, and bring them home to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. Organizers have banned alcohol sales, the use of public transportation, and cheering. If athletes even attempt to exit the village during their stay, they reportedly may face disqualification.

With even the most wink-wink of morning-show beats inspiring such paranoia, it’s another reminder this week that these games, deferred for a year and now spectator-less due to COVID, will not be the joyous celebration of the human spirit that they’ve been sold to us as since the modern Games began in 1896. It’s led people around the world—especially in Japan, where an estimated 25% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Reuters—to wonder why we’re still doing this. As the Olympic torch has traveled across the country in anticipation of Friday’s opening ceremony, it’s been greeted by protesters, one reportedly aiming a water gun at the flame.

After a May survey found that 83% of the Japanese population did not want the Games to go forward, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, one of the few organizations that could call the whole thing off, explained what was really behind his reasoning. “You cannot take a decision regarding an Olympic Games, which is followed by billions of people worldwide, which is being longed for by athletes around the globe, by having a poll,” he told The New York Times.

When the IOC made the March 2020 decision to delay, rather than outright cancel, it was an expression of their hope that the world would somehow get a handle on a then burgeoning pandemic. Now that Japan is in an even worse position than last year, and many of the usual financial benefits for the host country are already out of reach, it’s hard to imagine who really benefits from the event going forward. The cynical read is that too much money is on the line, especially with broadcast rights worth billions, and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics rapidly approaching.

In an interview this week, IOC member Dick Pound denied that financial motivations were at the heart of the decision, explaining that the organization could have survived even if the Games didn’t take place. “I think it’s important, (a) for the athletes, (b) for learning how to respond to game-changers like a COVID,” he said. “I mean, there hasn’t been something on this scale for a century, and nobody in living memory can remember the Spanish flu, as it was called. And frankly, the world at large needs some good news at this point.”

Ultimately, more than 50,000 athletes, reporters, officials and others are expected to gather for the Games, which will make it the largest international gathering since the beginning of the pandemic, per the Wall Street Journal. In some ways, it’s a stress test for whether or not these types of global gatherings will ever feel worth the financial risk and potential cost to human life while COVID is still an issue. We’re running a real-time experiment to tell exactly how much we should value the Games’ claims to promote international unity and athletic achievement.

It’s possible to argue that the Games should matter less to athletes than they ever have. Despite that, athletes are still traveling to Tokyo in droves. Even if the benefits to host countries are dubious at best and the Games are increasingly seen as outmoded, the allure of the medal still exists. The Tokyo Games are one of the first to come since the brand endorsements that have always made up an athlete’s income have been part of a broader economy of influencers. Even though plenty of athlete-influencers will never make it there, the first summer Games in the era of TikTok’s social media dominance might just prove how important the pageantry is for athletes looking to build a following and make a professional career.

The “anti-sex bed” conversation was one instance of this. Though the rumor was debunked by multiple media outlets, it’s fitting that some of the first real proof of the bed’s robustness came from an athlete’s social media. On Saturday, Irish gymnast and vlogger Rhys Mcclenaghan posted a video to Twitter of him jumping on the bed. It went viral. Mcclenaghan, a 22-year-old who took home a bronze medal on the pommel horse at the 2019 World Championships, has been documenting the road to his first Olympic competition on his YouTube channel. His vlogs have shown him in transit to the village, gawking at the self-driving vehicles, pointing out the presence of Japanese soldiers, enjoying sushi, and, of course, practicing for the competition. Things did get a bit meta when he took a moment to acknowledge that his tweet had gone viral, with particular enthusiasm for the fact that the video had made it to Jimmy Fallon’s show the previous night.

Naturally, the Olympic Village bed-jumping video is now a bona fide trend on TikTok. Though many athletes are still traveling to Tokyo, soccer players, swimmers, gymnasts, rowers, and more have already been settling in, and along with unboxing videos of their Olympic swag, humorous and acrobatic cardboard tests are becoming omnipresent. Some athletes are arriving with huge TikTok followings because of their standing in their sports, like Australian water polo player Tilly Kearns and Australian diver Sam Fricker, while many are young people who have grown them for their humorous take on trends, like Team USA rower Kendall Chase and rugby player Ilona Maher, and are exposing audiences to lesser-known sports. Diving is a particular obsession of TikTok, even for amateurs, and some dives occasionally spawn scores of reaction videos. American diver Tyler Downs is a breakout TikTok star, and David Boudia, the American who medaled four times in previous Games, has even joined in on the trend, offering some even-handed critiques on a young diver’s best efforts.

Instagram is where many track-and-field athletes have built their social followings, and in a sport with lots of stars but relatively few opportunities to speak to reporters, some runners have found a different road to success as influencers. At this year’s Olympic and Paralympic trials, one of the appeals for a viewer was the ability to go to Instagram, search for a runner who caught your eye, and be guaranteed to find a cache of workout videos, funny selfies, brand promos, and some insight into their life stories. No one has taken advantage of this more effectively than Raven Saunders, a three-time NCAA champion shot-putter who is heading to the Olympics for the second time. During the trials, she got a burst of attention for the green hair and Hulk-themed mask she sported on NBC’s coverage of her event, but on Instagram and TikTok, where she is @ravenhulksaunders, she plays around, twerks, and even responds humorously to complaints about her lifting form.





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