David Owen

I have been pining for Japan.

In recent days, I have read three books about the country.

The first was a slim volume on the significance of the tea ceremony, an aspect of daily life that highlights both similarities and differences between my country and the Land of the Rising Sun.

The second was a novel - Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri - a story set among the homeless of Ueno Park, with a main character who originally travels to Tokyo, from Fukushima, to help build the venues for the 1964 Olympics.

The third was the delightful Low City, High City by Edward Seidensticker, an affectionate and detailed account of the look and feel of Tokyo and its people between the Meiji restoration in 1867 and the great earthquake of 1923.

Once again I felt a connection: this was an era when fast-modernising Japan was finally opening up to outsiders, in contrast to the England I inhabit, which feels like it is moving in the opposite direction.

I was thinking last week about why I should feel so wistful, when I stumbled on a report by Stephen Wade of The Associated Press, penned after International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach's visit to the Japanese capital.

Thomas Bach's visit to Tokyo came coupled with warnings not to sightsee during the Olympics ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach's visit to Tokyo came coupled with warnings not to sightsee during the Olympics ©Getty Images

The start of Wade's piece triggered what I suppose in a small way amounted to a personal epiphany, when suddenly all appears clear.

It explained how athletes at next year's Games would be "encouraged to leave Japan a day or two after they've finished competing".

It went on to describe how Bach's senior IOC colleague John Coates, when asked if athletes would be "discouraged from sightseeing, or looking around the city", replied simply "Yes".

That was it: my mood could be explained by the dawning realisation that, though it might now be technically possible to lay on a huge sports mega-event next summer, the dimension that is for me the beating heart of any Olympics - the mingling of nationalities; the opportunity to bask for a while in all that is best about the host nation's culture - was likely to be, well, missing.

I still hope that this turns out to be a faulty assessment; that Coates, one of the sharpest knives in the IOC cutlery-drawer, was prudently managing expectations.

I fear, however, that it may turn out to be all too accurate, especially for bit-players such as independent media.

And it is perfectly understandable in a way: the IOC must avoid at all costs any risk of the Games being held responsible for an upsurge in infections, just as human society is plotting its way back towards some semblance of normality.

The euphoria of the recent vaccine announcements has given way quickly to the realisation that countries now face the demanding - and potentially socially explosive - task of getting the vast majority of the world population immunised ASAP.

Leave aside the anti-vaxers for now, tough decisions are going to have to be made over who gets their jab/jabs first and under what conditions.

This is not like the launch of some snazzy new mobile phone, where market forces hold sway and money alone talks - although one imagines the wealthy will indeed end up near the head of the inoculation queue.

Sport faces difficult questions if athletes get vaccinated for COVID-19 before the most vulnerable  ©Getty Images
Sport faces difficult questions if athletes get vaccinated for COVID-19 before the most vulnerable ©Getty Images

The world economy is not going to pull out of its current nosedive once and for all unless pretty much everyone, rich and poor, is protected.

A prioritisation system that is not confined to the law of supply and demand is going to have to be drawn up and implemented - and, to be efficient and non-divisive, it will need to command public consent.

This will require careful handling by a sports movement which has imposed on itself another "immovable" deadline as it seeks to safeguard its TV billions.

It is hard to say at present how far down the pecking, or jabbing, order we will have got by next July.

If everyone who wants to be vaccinated has undergone the procedure by then, no problem.

But, needless to say, it would not be good PR if elite athletes are perceived to be queue-barging at the expense of those more vulnerable.

If I have read him right, I think Bach's comments to the G20 Summit may have been designed, in part, to underline sport's case for being allowed a certain amount of precedence.

"Sport can save lives," was the very first thing he said after initial pleasantries to Saudi Arabia, hosts of the virtual meeting.

"During this coronavirus crisis, we all have seen how important sport is for physical and mental health," he went on.

"Beyond health, sport is contributing to the recovery on the social and economic side."

The other thing that, to quote Johnny Nash, I can see clearly now - though I would, in all honesty, have argued against it earlier this year when the decision had to be taken - is that a two year delay to Tokyo 2020, as advocated, reportedly, by some Organising Committee Board members, would have been preferable.

Yes, it would have caused problems with the packed sports calendar, with qualification and with those waiting to take possession of their new flats in the Olympic Village.

Yes, it would have cost more, though still peanuts compared with the cost of COVID.

And it is plainly not going to happen.

Tokyo 2020 visitors could miss out on Japanese culture ©Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 visitors could miss out on Japanese culture ©Getty Images

The likelihood now seems to be, however, that had we waited an extra year, we would have been able to celebrate the Games properly, revelling in the feats achieved and each other's company, enjoying Japan and being reminded once again that our country's way of doing things is not the only way.

I completely accept we are a privileged minority in being able to do this, though, pre-virus, anyone with a certain amount of disposable income could come and join in.

But I must say I view it as an indispensable element of the complex Olympic chemistry, and a much-needed counterweight to the nationalism of the TV Games.

Seidensticker describes how, visiting in 1879, General and Mrs Ulysses S. Grant were greeted with hydrangeas at Shimbashi station before embarking on a series of engagements and receptions which included the planting of a cypress tree and a magnolia in Ueno, kabuki (of course) and attendance at the traditional July festival on the Sumida river.

It will be just desperately sad for Japan, for Tokyo and for those concerned if, after the gargantuan efforts expended, whatever overseas visitors who do turn up next summer are not free to wander, insofar as heat permits, and have to spend much of their trip closeted in their hotel rooms.

Then again, the Grants' Japanese odyssey should have taken in both Kyoto and Osaka.

Notes Seidensticker: "This part of their schedule was cancelled because of a cholera epidemic."