Away to the left, visible fleetingly through the half-open window of the taxi that sped across the Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Bay towards a city in a state of emergency, an empty grandstand gazed out forlornly over the pontoon next to Odaiba Beach where the Olympic men’s and women’s triathlon competitions will begin and end in the next fortnight.
A little way from the shore, five giant blue, black, red, yellow and green interlocking Olympic rings sat above the water on a floating structure.
They were launched in January last year amid fireworks and fanfare but the Games were postponed and the rings have been there so long they had to be taken away for maintenance and brought back.
The Tokyo Games are going to be an unfamiliar spectacle, with Tokyo struggling to fight Covid
The event will be staged in front of empty stadia, with the IOC desperate for broadcasting cash
By the time they returned, after typhoon season, anticipation had curdled into a mixture of suspicion and fear.
This will be the Olympics of empty stands, not just at Odaiba Beach but at the beautiful Olympic Stadium in the Meiji-Jingu Park in the centre of the city, at the Aquatics Centre, at the Nippon Budokan, the Kokugikan Arena, the Ariake Urban Sports Park and all the other venues across the city.
In Germany, they call football matches played behind closed doors ‘geisterspiele’ or ghost games. These, too, will be the Ghost Games.
The Olympics are here but they are not particularly welcome. They are a financial imperative for the IOC, who are desperate for the billions of pounds in broadcast revenue they bring.
For the Japanese government, they appear to have become an obligation that they have reluctantly concluded has to be fulfilled but there is little evidence of enthusiasm among the local population.
Tokyo residents are far from happy to see the Olympics coming to town amid the pandemic
The city is struggling to progress its Covid vaccine programme and its residents are fearful
The opposite, actually. The IOC president Thomas Bach visited Hiroshima on Friday and was met with scorn.
‘President Bach using the image of a peaceful world without nuclear weapons only to justify holding of the Olympics by force under the pandemic is a blasphemy to atomic bombing survivors,’ said one statement on behalf of 11 anti-Olympic and pacifist groups.
Footage of the Olympic torch relay was shown on Japanese TV yesterday as it travelled around Tokyo’s environs. It has been banned from some public roads and there was only a smattering of spectators. They met the torch-bearers with polite applause.
There is more anecdotal evidence of general unease among the capital’s inhabitants about the influx of tens of thousands of competitors and journalists from all around the world at a time when Tokyo reported its highest Covid-19 numbers for six months last week and only 30 per cent of the population has had one shot of vaccine.
Visitors are regarded with concern. Haneda, one of the main gateways to Tokyo, looked more like a hospital than an airport last week.
It swarmed with medical officials in full PPE and one wing of one of the terminals had been converted into a giant testing centre to process arrivals before they were taken to their hotels in designated buses and taxis.
At one of the official IOC hotels in Ginza, where many journalists are staying, anyone connected with the Olympics has to use a different lift to one reserved for Japanese guests. Guests connected with the Olympics are also instructed to collect their breakfast from the dining area in a brown paper bag and eat it in their room.
The Olympics torch relay was met with only a smattering of roadside support in the build-up
They are also asked not to use the lobby to access the restaurant but to go out of a back door, through a lock-up garage and down an alley to a separate entrance.
The friendliness and courtesy of ordinary people remains but they are wary too.
And so the buzz of anticipation that usually sweeps through an Olympic city in the days before the start of the Games is entirely absent here. There will be no spectators in the arenas and the Tokyo 2020 organisers also say they will be restricting access around the Olympic cauldron, the fan zones and fan activity centres. It threatens to be a curiously disembodied event, a spectacle taking place in a country where nobody can watch it.
The hosts and the Games are divorced before they even made it to the altar. It is legitimate to argue that they should not be taking place at all or that they should have been postponed for another 12 months.
The IOC say the second option is not possible and financial imperatives mean that they were not prepared to countenance the first.
So we are left with a Games that feels dragged from the ruins of what it might have been.
The argument against scrapping Tokyo 2020, the reason why many of us are still glad they are going ahead, is simple. It is the athletes.
Athletes must be extremely careful or risk five years of preparation turning into heartbreak
Sportsmen and women who have devoted five years of their lives to getting to these Games. Their dream was taken away once when the Games were postponed last year. To have suffered the same fate a second time would have been unbearably cruel.
On Thursday, a British Airways flight carrying about 50 of the Team GB athletes landed at Haneda and it was impossible not to feel excited — and nervous — for them.
All had to take tests on arrival and everyone knew the consequences of a positive result did not bear thinking about. For the rest of us, it would mean two weeks in a government facility. For the official in the Olympic Village who became its first positive case, it meant quarantine. For the athletes, it would be five years of dedication and commitment down the drain.
That is why the British Olympic Association are to be commended for making it their priority to get the athletes to the start line.
The spectacle of watching stunning talents like Simone Biles will have to rescue these Games
These Games are not as much about performance as previously. Being here is the victory. Getting to the start line or onto the court or the judo mat is the victory.
In that way, at least, perhaps it will allow the Games to reconnect with the old spirit. Some of the emotional hinterland of the Games, which puts an athlete’s sacrifice into context and gives it even more meaning, will not be there.
Their families and loved ones have not been allowed to travel to watch them in the proudest moment of their competitive lives. There will be no crowds to roar them on.
They will have to hang their medals round their necks themselves. They will be tested for Covid every day. Their movements will be monitored.
They are not allowed in the city’s bars and restaurants. A couple of days after they have finished competing, they are required to leave the country. But the athletes will still rescue this event. Be sure of that.
The Olympics shine a light on extraordinary people who inspire us with their commitment and their ability and that light will not dim because of the obstacles that have been placed in their path.
We will still have the privilege of watching Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history and a woman whose grace and poise is mesmerising.
We will still watch Eliud Kipchoge in the men’s marathon. We will still get to marvel at the daring of men such as Adam Ondra, in the new Olympic sport of climbing, and youngsters like Britain’s Sky Brown in skateboarding. For Team GB, it is unlikely our athletes will get close to the haul of 67 medals that were won in Rio de Janeiro.
There is still history on the line, as Laura Kenny could become Britain’s greatest ever Olympian
But at the first Games where there will be more women (201) than men (175) in the GB team, there will still be moments that will feel like glorious triumphs of the human spirit after so long spent struggling with the restrictions wrought by the coronavirus.
Rower Helen Glover, who has had three children since Rio 2016, will be going for a third gold as she competes in the women’s pair with Polly Swann.
Laura Kenny, also a mother now, hopes to become the most decorated British female Olympian of all time, Jade Jones will be going for a third straight taekwondo gold and if Hannah Mills wins a medal, she will become the most successful female sailor in Olympic history.
Stories of great triumphs against adversity will abound. So will stories of heartbreak and shattered dreams. These Olympics will be different and, in some ways, they will be diminished.
But there is hope too that the world will watch its athletes striving for something they have worked so long to achieve and see in their joy and their dedication, in the face of so many obstacles, a reason to celebrate the human spirit.