There will be no fans in the stands at the Olympics.
But there will be fans in family rooms or wherever people can gather around a TV. And despite serial setbacks, including a postponement last summer due to the coronavirus crisis, there is plenty to cheer about the Olympic spirit — especially the athletes themselves, including a considerable contingent with Minnesota ties.
The fan ban follows declaration of a pandemic-related state of emergency in Tokyo, where the Summer Games begin on Friday. Olympic organizers made the right decision, given a recent rise in COVID cases. But with strict protocols for athletes, officials, the media and others directly involved in the competition, it's a reasonable risk to proceed with an event that will feel more like the 2020 NHL and NBA seasons that were successfully completed in a "bubble."
Reflecting reality and requisite optimism, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke to global Olympic fans in saying: "I want to transmit them a message from Tokyo about overcoming hardship with effort and wisdom."
Tokyo's beleaguered Olympic organizers have certainly shown those virtues, as have the athletes about to compete on the world's biggest (and now loneliest) stage. Although in the U.S. most of the focus has been on who's not going to compete: Sha'Carri Richardson, the track star who was suspended after testing positive for marijuana.
Richardson handled the matter with grace matching her athleticism. The drug is legal where she used it, in Oregon. But the ban is an International Olympic Committee rule, and rules need to be enforced even amid legitimate criticism of the policy. It's worth noting that the U.S. has joined other countries in backing penalties for the Russian team for doping, which is cheating. Russian athletes will compete under a "Russian Olympic Committee" banner, not solely a Russian one, a too-mild penalty for their serial and serious offenses. So while marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, selective enforcement would only prolong the doping scourge.
There doubtless will be other controversies beyond COVID and doping, and much focus will be on what's wrong with the Olympic movement. That's fair, and appropriate. But what's right about the Olympic movement shouldn't be eclipsed. Under extraordinary pandemic distress, some of the world's best athletes persevered and will gather with others from nearly 200 countries to compete at a time of geopolitical turmoil. That's always an antidote to the cynicism that pervades so much of the world, and is especially welcome now.
Among those who inspire are at least 17 with Minnesota ties — a strong showing from a state accustomed to fielding a deep contingent in the winter games. Already garnering the most headlines are three gymnasts — Suni Lee and Grace McCallum on the women's team and Shane Wiskus for the men's squad, as well as Regan Smith and Bowe Becker in the pool and Gable Steveson on the wrestling mat.
Other Minnesota-connected athletes going for gold are the Lynx's Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier in basketball, Mason Ferlic, Payton Otterdahl and Joe Klecker in track and field, Jordan Thompson in volleyball and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in tennis.
Equally impressive are athletes excelling in sports that only seem to get a quadrennial spotlight, like Lara Dallman-Weiss in sailing, Patrick Sunderman in rifle shooting, Alise Willoughby in BMX racing, and Kyra Condie in sport climbing, which, along with karate, skateboarding and surfing, will make its Olympic debut.
Far from Minnesota — and far from homes they've lost — will be 29 athletes who are part of the Olympic Refugee Team. They've overcome the pandemic and endemic geopolitical turmoil to become elite athletes and, more profoundly, extraordinary people. They also represent why despite all of the concerns and controversies over the Tokyo Games and the Olympic movement, it's worth it to keep the torch lit.