Tokyo on TV: there’s a great view of the Olympics from my sofa – review

Empty stadiums, sweltering athletes and a majestic Mount Fuji – the opening day wasn’t perfect but was still gripping to watch

Still mired in the well-documented protests and controversy, the first official day of the Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympics finally arrived. It was time to sit in front of the television and embrace your inner couch potato as, across the main Olympics channels (BBC, Eurosport, Discovery+), you watched people fitter than you could ever be achieve things you could never achieve.

The Tokyo Games are mainly devoid of spectators: for the opening ceremony, the 68,000-capacity stadium had 950 guests, with dignitaries including President Emmanuel Macron of France and the US first lady, Jill Biden. Viewers had to become acclimatised to vast, eerily empty stadiums full of new, shiny but unused flip seats, just as athletes had to get used to the sweltering temperatures and humidity.

Understandably, the intense weather was a recurring topic for presenters and pundits. You felt pity for the likes of a wilting Matthew Pinsent, gasping into a giant yellow microphone, waiting to commentate for the BBC, though even sorrier for the subjects of his commentary. The female rowers, including Team GB’s Helen Glover – one of the returning mums proving that elite sports and parenthood can mix – sat in their boats on top of what appeared to be a broth of steaming river water.

The Games are also about showcasing the host country, and the road cycling event transported viewers on a grand tour of vivid, quintessentially Japanese vistas. These included everything from neon-flecked urban landscapes to countryside so lush and immaculate it looked artificial, to the shadowy, majestic Mount Fuji, whose lower regions were the backdrop for one section of what everyone agreed was a brutal race.

Team GB’s Helen Glover and Polly Swann in the women’s pairs heat.
Team GB’s Helen Glover and Polly Swann in the women’s pairs heat. Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

Bradley Wiggins, the Eurosport pundit, had high hopes for Team GB’s Geraint Thomas, but Thomas crashed out: “A touch of the wheels, completely unnecessary,” groaned a commentator. Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz eventually rode to victory into an open-air stadium in front of an actual whooping crowd.

In the avalanche of coverage, it was easy to find yourself becoming engrossed in things you had never seen before, such as women’s beach volleyball, where Amazonians jumped about punching balls in an enormous sandpit. Or men’s hockey. (Am I hallucinating burly St Trinians?) We will have to wait for the Olympic debuts of the likes of surfing and sport climbing, which will involve athletes scrambling across walls like spider monkeys.

Another new sport, skateboarding, promises refreshing, youthful visuals and will feature US favourite Nyjah Huston and Team GB’s Sky Brown, who at 13 years old isn’t even Tokyo’s youngest Olympian: that’s 12-year-old Syrian table tennis player Hend Zaza (sadly eliminated).

While famous Olympic faces are missing because of injury, retirement, enforced quarantining et al – Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, to name a few – there is still so much to come, including the truly unmissable US gymnast Simone Biles. A decision appears to have been made by all sports channels to repeat-play Destiny’s Child’s Survivor over her footage. There is also the tennis player Naomi Osaka – who lit the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony – playing for Japan. And of course, Team GB’s Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest British female sprinter in history.

It wasn’t a perfect viewer experience. The events worst hit by lack of spectators were football, the Olympic debut sport 3x3 basketball, and some of the gymnastics. At such points, there was a bizarre sense of a dress rehearsal for a massive school sports day for adults. Let’s face it, empty stadiums and canned “crowd noise” aren’t anybody’s first choice. Saying that, lolling on my sofa, watching the Olympic opening was exhausting … in a good way: a blizzard of images, thrills, energy and the drama of high-stakes sporting endeavour. At least in terms of the home viewing experience, this Olympics could still work.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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