The city has been placed under a state of emergency, no fans will be in attendance, and a rising number of athletes are in isolation due to Covid protocols. Yet the Games will go on, a year after they were originally supposed to take place and with much of the world still battling the pandemic.
It is (almost) unheard of in the long history of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the spectacle to be cancelled altogether. Indeed, that has just happened just three times, in 1916 due to the First World War, and in 1940 and 1944, when the continuance of the Second World War shelved any hopes that sport’s unifying power might prevail.
Many of the Olympics’ self-professed values were first inspired by the ancient version of the Games, first held in Greece around 776 BC as a tribute to Zeus, the god of sky and thunder. Zeus was thought to be the father of humanity, and the demigod Herakles wanted to acknowledge the part he had played in helping him conquer the city state of Elis – so he staged an athletics competition in Olympia and the name “Olympics” was born.
Not until 1894 was the idea put forward to resurrect the concept by French historian and academic Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
The first modern Games, held in Athens, Greece as a tribute to its roots, were held two years later in 1896, though it was not until 1900 that the first women took part, restricted to tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf.
“The important thing in the Olympic Games,” Coubertin explained, “is not winning but taking part. Just as in life, the aim is not to conquer but to struggle well.”
There have been occasions, inevitably, when that ethos has been lost. Doping is a long-standing issue and Russia has had more medals stripped retrospectively (14) for violations than any other nation. The 2008 Beijing Games saw no fewer than 50 medals taken back from various teams.
Historically, the competition has also proved a subtext of the political sphere, with a number of countries boycotting particular Games. A total of 25 African nations withdrew from Montreal 1976, unhappy that New Zealand were allowed to participate despite their rugby team touring South Africa in the apartheid era. South Africa were banned from sending teams between 1964 and 1992 due to the policy.
The USA, meanwhile, refused to take part in Moscow 1980 at the height of the Cold War, with the official reason being given as a protest against the USSR invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Four years later, Los Angeles was boycotted by 14 countries in the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union and East Germany. Albania, Iran and Libya also refused to attend.
Full list of host cities
- 1896 – Athens (Greece)
- 1900 – Paris (France)
- 1904 – St Louis (USA)
- 1908 – London (England)
- 1912 – Stockholm (Sweden)
- 1916 – Berlin (Germany) – CANCELLED
- 1920 – Antwerp (Belgium)
- 1924 – Paris (France)
- 1928 – Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- 1932 – Los Angeles (USA)
- 1936 – Berlin (Germany)
- 1940 – Tokyo/Helsinki (Japan, Finland) – CANCELLED
- 1944 – London (England) – CANCELLED
- 1948 – London (England)
- 1952 – Helsinki (Finland)
- 1956 – Melbourne and Stockholm (Australia & Sweden)
- 1960 – Rome (Italy)
- 1964 – Tokyo (Japan)
- 1968 – Mexico City (Mexico)
- 1972 – Munich (West Germany)
- 1976 – Montreal (Canada)
- 1980 – Moscow (Soviet Union)
- 1984 – Los Angeles (USA)
- 1988 – Seoul (South Korea)
- 1992 – Barcelona (Spain)
- 1996 – Atlanta (USA)
- 2000 – Sydney (Australia)
- 2004 – Athens (Greece)
- 2008 – Beijing (China)
- 2012 – London (England)
- 2016 – Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
- 2020 – Tokyo (Japan)
Notwithstanding the shifting tides of history, the Olympics has also changed beyond recognition due to the introduction of new sports, and the disposal of some old ones. Pistol duelling and tug-of-war, for example, no longer feature, but skateboarding and BMX Freestyle will be witnessed for the first time at Tokyo 2020.
Residents of the Japanese city have had well-documented and understandable reservations about hosting, with thousands of athletes and support staff descending on the Olympic Village.
Yet the IOC still perceive it as the ultimate honour to be hand-picked and while Tokyo has been here before in 1964, only one city has hosted three separate Games. London was selected in 1908, 1948 and 2012, having been scheduled to hold them in 1944 but missing out due to war.
So in many ways, it will be a summer like no other, but the more things change, the more things stay the same. It’s hoped the Olympics will restore some sense of normality and positivity and that Coubertin’s vision of glorious struggle will ring true in the sporting arena.