United with our Olympians

The Belgium gymnastics team waits to compete in Tokyo. Photo: Reuters
The Belgium gymnastics team waits to compete in Tokyo. Photo: Reuters
It is weird watching the Tokyo Olympics.

The athletes compete under the mask of Covid-19 to near-empty stadiums a year later than was scheduled.

This is the Olympics that many believed should have been postponed again or cancelled.

Covid case numbers in Japan remain high, most citizens are not yet fully vaccinated, and fears remain that the extremely infectious Delta variant could spread in the village and proceedings could be disrupted.

Japan, itself under pressure, has become the temporary home to many thousands of athletes and officials from around the world. Would they bring the virus with them and put more Japanese at risk?

Only world wars have stopped the Games before, although boycotts in the 1970s and 1980s have taken some shine off medals.

Japan has been bitterly divided on whether the plug should have been pulled. It has taken bloody-minded determination to push on.

It seems the show must go on, that the Olympics is so huge and such big business that not even a global pandemic will stand in its way.

Where does that leave us as the potential consumers of the Olympics product?

There is a slice of New Zealand, larger than many realise, who do not warm to sport and whose interests lie elsewhere. The artificiality of games and the pointlessness of the competition does not warm their hearts or stir competitive juices.

There is a group, small one suspects, who are so disappointed the Games can march on while Covid rages that they choose, on principle, to restrict their exposure to this travesty.

Then there are the keen sports followers who lap up the range of sports, from speed climbing to beach volleyball to fencing. They love both the international rivalries and the involvement of New Zealanders.

They will not be easily put off. This is the chance for a binge every four years (or after five in this case). The Olympics provide windows into contests they would normally never enjoy.

The audience spreads and grows when the Games is on TVNZ’s channel one. Feeding off newspapers, websites and the radio, momentum builds after the Olympic flame is lit.

Special interest is shown in our women and men and their stories. We cheer and commiserate with Lewis Clareburt in the swimming and salute triathlete Hayden Wilde winning New Zealand’s first medal. We root for the rowers. We play along with the hockey players and footballers. We heave with the weightlifters.

Such is the size of the team, 211, that each community has daughters and sons in the fray. Dunedin, for example, has the surprise swimming finalist Erika Fairweather, at 17 the youngest in the contingent.

We live in an increasingly divided society, one where the focus is often on identity, where national news is dominated by problems and complaints and by pressure groups howling or threatening to strike or struggling through lack of funding or misguided policies.

Crime and anti-social behaviour never seem far away.

No wonder we rally behind our national team in its diversity of sports and backgrounds.

No wonder we revel in this almighty distraction from the cares of the world and our own worries.

No wonder so many of us follow at least some of the Olympics even if they are deeply flawed at the best of times, let alone in July and August 2021.

Our representatives are us for the two weeks. They come from our small communities around our little land. They become our flag bearers by being there.

They all have worked so hard just to make it to Tokyo. Some will be knocked out in the first round while a handful become champions of the world as gold medalists.

Each can have at least a moment in our limelight.


As one of the last bastions of national patriotism, sport is number one enemy of the social engineers. Sadly it has fallen. The symbolism of Olympians performing in front of green screen empty stadiums, is apt. Switch it off, go play footy at the local. Run the meddling Ken’s and Karen’s out of your sporting facility with pitchforks.


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