Anti-Asian Racism and the 2020 Olympic Games

As far as “gaffes” go on a global scale, one cannot do much worse than calling the Japanese people “Chinese.” It is an error of racism and arrogance not easily washed away with an apology. Saying such a thing is wincingly awful enough in casual conversation. But doing so in front of a microphone is even worse. Also, when committed by the head of the International Olympic Committee, about as popular in Japan as trash on the sidewalk, such a “gaffe” quickly becomes an international incident.

At his first press conference after arriving in Tokyo for the Olympic Games, IOC President Thomas Bach said, “Our common target is safe and secure games for everybody; for the athletes, for all the delegations, and most importantly also for the Chinese people.” Bach quickly corrected himself. If it had been another person at another place and in another time, perhaps the immediate correction would have been the end of it. His interpreters chose to not even translate the error. But it caused an uproar because Bach has already been consecrated as the great villain of these Olympic Games: someone demanding $30 billion, militarization for the sake of security, the destruction of cherished forests and fish markets, and, above all, “sacrifice” from the Japanese people.

Bach is seen as the person who is ramming through the games even though the city of Tokyo is under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. He is seen as flouting the will of the 80 percent of the population who want the games to be delayed. His statement that the games will be “safe and secure” sounds like something George W. Bush would say on an aircraft carrier. He seems utterly insensitive to the fear that these Olympics could provoke a super-spreader event among a largely unvaccinated population. He doesn’t seem to care that 80,000 people are set to descend onto the city, including athletes like US swimmer Michael Andrew who are boasting about not taking the vaccine (and among top athletes, Andrew is merely the loudest about being an anti-vaxxer.)

Bach is also making clear through his actions that he sees himself as absolved from obeying the strict rules aimed at limiting the spread of Covid throughout the densely populated city. According Tokyo’s strictures surrounding the state of emergency, Bach should be isolating himself for 14 days in his five-star hotel suite. But this Friday, he instead will be venturing out of Tokyo to Hiroshima. He wants a nice public relations moment where he can travel to Peace Memorial Park and lay flowers at a monument for those killed in 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city. Yet 30,000 Japanese people have signed a petition calling for this trip to be canceled, not only because they see it as a political stunt that “dishonors” the dead but also because he will be violating the quarantine so needed to keep the coronavirus and all its variants at bay. It is just another example of how Bach and his cronies in the IOC simply don’t believe the rules apply to them.

Bach says that the Olympics will require a “great sacrifice” from the people of Tokyo, praising their “great resilience and spirit” and their ability “to overcome adversity.” But this is not a sacrifice they asked for. It is one being imposed by the IOC over the meek objections of Japanese leaders who—fearful of lawsuits and of losing the billions they have already sunk into the Games—seem to have handed the keys of the kingdom over to Bach. He is in charge, like some kind of European imperial viceroy, praising his subjects (if can remember what nationality they happen to be) for their sacrifice while he oozes along with his entourage around the countryside.

In a piece written for the Nikkei Times, Tokyo-based journalist William Pesak asks the question, “Is there a limit to the Olympic sacrifices we must make?” He writes, “Just out of curiosity, what is your over/under on human sacrifice? I cannot speak for all of the greater Tokyo area’s 37 million sacrificers, but for me, it is a very hard ‘No.’”

Spread of the coronavirus feels like an ugly inevitability. Yet even if the worst-case scenario does not come to pass, this has already been an exercise in waste, arrogance, and, yes, racism. The dehumanization of the Japanese people is a prerequisite for forcing these Pandemic Games on an unwilling population. Racism provides a pretext for going ahead with the Games in the face of all logic. Accepting this dehumanization and racism is a necessity for every Olympic booster putting on blinders and ignoring the cries of resistance. If you can’t see that, then listen to Thomas Bach. He’ll make that reality clear, one gaffe at a time.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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