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Saturday Sports: The Olympics Have Finally Begun

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The 2020 Summer Olympics have begun - in the summer of 2021 - a year late, maybe billions of dollars short and with almost no spectators. We turn now to NPR's Tom Goldman in Tokyo. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Scott, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: You know, there are sports to talk about, but we just have to note these Olympics are being held under circumstances that are very controversial, and we have to begin with that.

GOLDMAN: We sure do. And, you know, there's no guarantee the controversy will fade. First, obviously, Scott, these are the pandemic Olympics, and there's a question of whether there'll be more pandemic or Olympics. Tokyo will be under its fourth state of emergency through the games. The numbers of positive coronavirus cases have been climbing, both among those connected to the games and Tokyo citizens. You know, another unique aspect of these Olympics - public anger is really hanging on, largely because of the pandemic. There have been constant street protests in Tokyo. Last night, during the opening ceremony, close to 500 people turned out to march in downtown Tokyo.

SIMON: I understand you talked to several of them. What did they say?

GOLDMAN: You know, the Olympics have become such a big, bloated affair. Reports say the Tokyo budget has ballooned to at least $30 billion, and the protesters say that money should be going elsewhere. Before last night's rally, I talked to one of the organizers, a university professor named Satoko Itani. And Itani said the Olympic budget is particularly upsetting since Japanese citizens feel they're not being adequately cared for during the pandemic. Remember; only about a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated as the games begin. And here's Itani.

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SATOKO ITANI: And also, they are not distributing money, really, to support the businesses that are really losing and struggling. And while that is happening, we are witnessing tens of thousands of Olympic delegates coming into Japan, and the athletes are tested every day. You know, like, there's a lot of sense of unfairness that the Olympics is prioritized over people's everyday life.

GOLDMAN: And, Scott, activists like Itani vow to keep raising their voices even though the games have started. There's concern there will be a real reckoning after the games with a lot of debt. And, you know, who knows how much more serious the pandemic will be in Japan?

SIMON: Let's do begin to know some of the games and events, of course, 'cause they're very important moments in the lives of athletes and spectators around the world - softball, women's gymnastics, men's and women's swimming coming up. Novak Djokovic won his first round match. What are you looking forward to?

GOLDMAN: Most immediately, a U.S. medal, Scott. Today was the first time since 1972 that the U.S.A. did not win a medal on the first day medals were awarded. Now, on the plus side, the U.S. women's national soccer team righted the ship. After getting pounded by Sweden in their first game, U.S. did some pounding of it's own, beating New Zealand 6-1, putting the two-time defending World Cup champs back in good position to move into the deeper rounds of the tournament.

And, you know, you mentioned Serbia's Novak Djokovic. He, of course, is going for the so-called golden slam. That's winning all four Grand Slam events and an Olympic gold in the same calendar year. No man has ever done that. He's won the first three Grand Slams, and he did start his quest for gold medal today with an easy win.

SIMON: I do not have to let the week expire without being able to say - I put this through Google Translate, OK? - (speaking Japanese). Revere the dear in Japanese because there are a couple of Milwaukee Bucks, world champions, on the U.S. national team and, it must be said, Devin Booker of the Suns, too.

GOLDMAN: How I would love to see you lead that chant here, megaphone in hand.

SIMON: Oh, I - and, you know, we should - we got NBA stars in Argentina, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Slovenia and Spain. It's amazing.

GOLDMAN: It is. It is. You know, and really, there's never been more top talent spread worldwide than there is right now. And an indication of that, Scott, at the London Olympics in 2012, the U.S. men beat Nigeria by 83 points. And recently, the teams played in an exhibition, and Nigeria won. So, you know, that was that was kind of an indication that the U.S. is not perhaps the juggernaut it's been in the past. They will need Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker and everyone else to play their best.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman in Tokyo, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.