The favourite for gold in this year’s Olympic competition for most important political ramification is the host nation. However, Black Lives Matter is in with a shout and likely to at least win the media headline race.

If artistic swimming, fencing, athletics, or any of the other 25 official summer sports are not to your fancy, there’s always the unofficial political games to watch, starting with the opening ceremony and fun with flags. During the “Parade of Nations” Greece always enters the stadium first, as the birthplace of the Olympic movement, and the host nation comes last. The rest troop through in alphabetical order based on the language of the hosts so don’t be surprised when Ireland walks in ahead of Australia.

So far, so tradition. But wait! Is that an EU flag I see before me? It might be. European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas has asked athletes from Slovenia (current EU Council presidency) to carry the star-spangled Union flag along with their own. She says the flag would stand as a “symbol of peaceful coexistence”. Given that the EU is a political organisation, it’s hard to see how that fits with Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites”. Indeed, Rule 50 is why South Korea’s Olympic committee has, at the International Olympic Committee’s request, removed banners at the athletes’ village in Tokyo referring to a 16th-century Korean-Japanese war. It’s also why Japan has accepted a ban on its “rising sun” flag, a symbol of Japan’s wartime past still used by its navy.

The Taiwanese meanwhile have showed up with a specially designed flag of some place called “Chinese Taipei” because the IOC always bows to Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan doesn’t exist. Hong Kong’s team will compete as “Hong Kong China”, and if any of its athletes win a gold medal they will stand for the Chinese national anthem. One Song–Two Systems. The Russians are coming, but as the ROC (Russian Olympic Committee) because the country, anthem, and flag are all banned due to doping allegations. Look out for their banner – part Russian, part IOC.

Half of the flags will be carried by women. This is a first because the IOC has allowed Olympic teams to select both male and female flag-bearers having noticed that in previous years those honoured tended to be men. The Chinese volleyball captain Zhu Ting will be the first woman to carry China’s flag.  

That’s just for openers. Let the Games begin! 

Recently the IOC made it clear that kneeling, raising a fist, or wearing armbands featuring political slogans would violate Rule 50. Its view is that “when an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors, and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished.”  Such actions, it says, will result in disciplinary action. 

That will be an interesting test. We are a long way from Mexico 1968 when John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the Black Power salute, were kicked off the US team, and given two days to leave Mexico. In the current climate, action taken against any Black Lives Matter-related gestures by athletes would provoke a massive row and risk the IOC being opposed by individual country Olympic committees. Two years ago US hammer thrower Gwen Berry was reprimanded by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for raising her fist on the podium. However, the USOPC subsequently apologised and changed its rules, saying it “will not sanction Team USA athletes for respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.” In trials recently Berry turned away from the podium and draped a t-shirt over her head during the national anthem.

Athletes are allowed to make political statements on social media and when speaking to the media, but within guidelines of not interfering with another “athlete’s or team’s concentration on and/or preparation for the competition”. Check out the post-event interviews…

The above is geopolitics and culture war, but for Japan the Olympics impacts on its domestic political agenda. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga inherited the games from his predecessor Shinzo Abe for whom hosting them was a triumph and opportunity to showcase the country. But that was pre-Covid.

Japan has suffered less than most countries from Covid-19 but its vaccine rollout has been patchy and remains behind other industrialised nations. Suga’s approval ratings have been dropping ever since he came to power last year and he faces parliamentary elections no later than 28 November. Allowing in 11,000 athletes, plus their support teams, is a calculated risk in a country where 40 per cent of people wanted the Olympics to be cancelled entirely. Suga declared Japan’s fourth coronavirus state of emergency on 8 July, fuelling calls for the games to be called off.

So, it’s game on for the Olympics and Japanese politics. The bubble system inside the Olympic Village is already bursting. If the Games are thought to be a super spreader raising transmission rates in the public, then Japan wins gold – but it will be a loser’s medal.