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Protests Have Persisted Outside Of The Tokyo Olympics


One of the most controversial Summer Olympics has begun after a year-long postponement due to the pandemic. It's already early morning Saturday in the host city of Tokyo. But in one part of the city on Friday, there was the spectacle of the opening ceremony. And in another, there was a loud and angry protest, a reminder of how unpopular these Games have been since long before they even started. From Tokyo, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: They started gathering outside a downtown train station in the early evening heat - activists and residents. Police were everywhere in light-blue shirts and white face masks, carrying yellow plastic megaphones. Olympic events require warm up. That goes for Olympic protests, too, as rally speaker Satoko Itani took the microphone.


SATOKO ITANI: What do we want? Cancel the Olympics. When do we want it? (Speaking Japanese). Now.

GOLDMAN: A little more instruction and they got it.


ITANI: What do we want?


ITANI: When do we want it?


GOLDMAN: In sync, they set off, several hundred strong, signs held high reading, no Olympics, use the money for COVID-19 and bread, not circuses. The parade of protesters slowly moved toward the National Stadium, where soon, another parade, of athletes, would inspire a worldwide TV audience during the opening ceremony. The two parades would never meet. Police made sure of that in a somewhat benevolent way.

They're actually getting a police escort. So it's a police car driving in front. There are police officers walking with them, making sure that they stay in line. It's very orderly, but there's a lot of anger, too.

Isako Motoyama (ph), a university researcher, said her anger stemmed from an Olympic budget that ballooned, according to some reports, to at least $30 billion, much of it taxpayer money.

ISAKO MOTOYAMA: Medical and financial resources are being taken by this huge sports games. And we are yet to see the worst situation after this Olympic Games.

GOLDMAN: You mean COVID will get worse, you think?

MOTOYAMA: COVID get worse, and also, we will soon face this really huge debt.

GOLDMAN: COVID is getting worse. Tokyo is in its fourth state of emergency through the Games. And numbers of positive coronavirus cases have climbed each day this week leading up to the open, not just among Tokyo residents, but those linked to the Olympics as well. The pandemic has moved the needle on Olympic dissatisfaction from the traditional grumbling about traffic and cost and environmental impact into a red zone, where polls have consistently shown a majority of Japanese voters wants the Games either cancelled or postponed. Neither, it appears, is going to happen now. In a quieter moment the day before the protest, I asked the person who led that chant at the rally, Satoko Itani, this question - do the games moving forward, as they always do, mean the years of writing and speeches and organizing against Tokyo 2020 were fruitless?

ITANI: I don't think my tenure was wasted (ph).

GOLDMAN: To the contrary, says Itani, a 38-year-old associate professor at Kansi University in Osaka. The controversy over the International Olympic Committee pushing through these games despite the pandemic has changed attitudes beyond Japan.

ITANI: And now, the public is paying attention to the social issues of the Olympics. They are reading our work. And they are making connections to previous Olympics. And so it's actually significant that the people are realizing that, oh, this is not just a Japan problem, it's an Olympic problem.

GOLDMAN: Olympic problems traditionally fade as the games become a kaleidoscope of irresistible athlete stories and drama. Even in a muted National Stadium last night, tennis champion Naomi Osaka stirred people's imagination when she lit the Olympic cauldron. It doesn't mean the protesters' fire was doused, but it will dim, unless of course the pandemic Olympics become more pandemic than Olympics.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.