TOKYO — So accustomed to top-down harmony is the International Olympic Committee that when a single vote was cast against the re-election of Thomas Bach to a second term last spring, the back-channel chatter was about whether someone had simply pushed the wrong button.
Anonymous to most casual fans, Bach, 67, is one of the most powerful people in global sports, a bespectacled, quadrilingual German whose decisions can alter the fates of not one sport, but dozens; not one country, but hundreds; and not merely a select group of elite professionals, but a worldwide athlete population in the millions.
Over the past year, as an impassioned international discourse simmered around the Tokyo Games — first postponed for a year, now pushing forth to a Friday opening amid a pandemic-related state of emergency and a caustic chorus of criticism in Japan — Bach was the centrifugal force propelling them ahead.
Interviews with more than two dozen current and former colleagues, athletes, international sports officials and experts confirmed that perspectives on Bach are as diverse as the array of sports he oversees.
He is praised as a clairvoyant strategist. He is criticized as an autocrat. He is respected like a head of state. He is maligned as a friend of dictators. He is a former gold-medal-winning fencer who four decades ago helped kick-start the athlete empowerment movement. He vexes a younger generation of athletes now seeking different forms of empowerment. He has secured the fortunes of the Olympics for the next decade. He has inspired debate about whether they should exist at all.
In his tenure since 2013, Bach’s I.O.C. has faced doping scandals, challenges to its moral authority, threats of war. Now, the Tokyo Games represent perhaps his steepest obstacle yet: a supposedly joyful symposium that is instead clouded by questions of life and death.
That the president, amid all this, can still seem so bulletproof, so immune to whatever challenges swirl around him on a given day, reflects the cocoon of power he has built for himself atop the I.O.C.
With few internal checks and little external accountability, Bach has consolidated control inside the organization to such an extent that he has become, in the eyes of many allies and critics alike, the most influential president in the 127-year history of the modern Olympics.
The question is, is he saving the Olympics or imperiling them?
TOKYO — A man identifying himself as the Ugandan weight lifter who went missing last week after he left his hotel room at a training camp in Osaka prefecture in Japan has been found by the police in a town about 100 miles away. A statement from the Ugandan government said that the man is the missing athlete.
The man, identified as Julius Ssekitoleko, 20, the weight lifter who did not make his country’s Olympic squad and was originally scheduled to fly home to Uganda on Tuesday, was found at the home of an acquaintance in Yokkaichi City, in Mie prefecture, carrying identification.
Mr. Ssekitoleko was discovered missing from his hotel room Friday after he failed to appear for a daily coronavirus test in Izumisano. He left a note saying he wished to work in Japan. Police have been searching for him ever since.
Naoki Fukuyama, an official at the Osaka prefectural police department, said the police were consulting with the Ugandan embassy on where to deliver him. The other eight teammates who were also training in Izumisano moved to the Olympic Village on Monday.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the Ugandan Embassy in Tokyo said it was working with Japanese authorities to enable Mr. Ssekitoleko’s “safe and secure” return to Uganda as early as Wednesday.
“Any issues to do with alleged absconding from the duty he had been flown to perform in Japan and related disappearance from the training camp, will be handled appropriately on his return to Uganda,” the statement said.
According to Mr. Fukuyama, the police had tracked Mr. Ssekitoleko on a surveillance camera taking a bullet train from Osaka to Nagoya, where he met another man and traveled to Gifu in central Japan.
Police officers visited that man’s house, where he told them that Mr. Ssekitoleko had moved to another home in Yokkaichi, where police found him on Tuesday afternoon.
“He may be a hero in his country, but he felt it was difficult to return to the country as he learned he can’t compete in the Games,” Mr. Fukuyama said. “He must have hoped to win and bring the gold medal back to his country. I feel sorry for him. I felt relieved he was found and want to hand him over as soon as possible as many citizens are worrying.”
Last month, a coach and an athlete with the Ugandan Olympic delegation tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in Japan. It was not clear if Mr. Ssekitoleko was one of them.
“He is not a criminal,” Mr. Fukuyama said. “Even though he has violated the Olympic rules, he has no problem doing anything as his visa is valid.”
Musinguzi Blanshe contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda.
NBC will show more than 7,000 hours of coverage of the Tokyo Olympics across its platforms, including NBC stations, cable channels, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.
The opening ceremony for the Olympics is scheduled for Friday night in Tokyo. But the 13-hour time difference with Tokyo means it will be Friday morning in the United States.
NBC will have a live morning broadcast of the ceremony, starting at 6:55 a.m. Eastern time. Savannah Guthrie, the anchor for “Today,” and NBC Sports’s Mike Tirico will host the ceremony.
Afterward, NBC will also broadcast a special edition of “Today” that includes athlete interviews, followed by an Olympic daytime show.
Similar to years past, the network will air a packaged prime time version of the ceremony at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday. Coverage will also be replayed again overnight for viewers who missed earlier broadcasts.
Though the opening ceremony is Friday, the first competitions begin on Wednesday in Japan.
Softball, which is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, kicks off the events with a match between Japan and Australia at 8 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday. (The game begins in Japan on Wednesday at 9 a.m. Japan Standard Time.) The U.S. softball team will also play ahead of the opening ceremony, facing Italy at 11 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday. Both games will air on NBC Sports.
In addition to NBC Sports, Olympic events will be shown on the Golf Channel, NBC Olympics, NBC Sports Network, Telemundo and USA Network. Events will also be streamed on NBCOlympics.com, NBCSports.com and Peacock, the network’s streaming streaming platform.
After the opening ceremony, the Tokyo Games will stretch across 16 days, culminating in the closing ceremony on Aug. 8.
TOKYO — Alone in a mostly bare room, my passport and press credentials confiscated, it seemed prudent to let my colleagues know where I was. Immediately.
“I am being detained by the authorities,” read the brief text I tapped out on my phone from deep inside one of Tokyo’s international airports late Monday night.
Was my trip to the Tokyo Olympics, years in the planning and still only a few hours old, over before it had begun?
For most of this year, rising coronavirus infection rates in Japan have caused grave concern and significant debate among citizens here about the wisdom — and the public health risks — of allowing hordes of athletes, officials and news media members into the country.
To assuage those concerns, Japan has thrown up numerous safeguards and hurdles to ensure that only a few, or preferably zero, Covid-positive people enter the country during the Games. Before even boarding a plane for Tokyo, for example, news media members, athletes and visiting officials had to produce two negative virus tests, download health-tracking apps onto their phones and agree to use them, fill out a slew of forms and print a stack of documents.
The strategy has not been foolproof — two athletes joined the list of Olympic positives on Tuesday — but it is thorough, which helps explain why I had been asked to surrender my passport and media credential and left to sit, alone, wondering whether I was about to be sent home on the next flight.
The pre-departure requirements had only been the start. Upon arrival at the airport in Japan, a 10-stage process began. At most of the steps a cheerful worker asked for one, two or maybe three documents to inspect. At another, a roomful of news media members from around the world spit into tubes for a third Covid test.
At one station, a bright yellow sheet reading OCHA — the name of a tracking app — was handed to each visitor. Two stations later, we were ushered to an attendant whose main job seemed to be to scrutinize the yellow sheet we had all just received.
I had spent the better part of a week gathering documents and test results and preparing for the process, and things seemed to be going smoothly until Step 8. There, a worker inspected my already heavily-scrutinized documents and abruptly ushered me out of line. “Your name on your passport and your credential don’t match,” she explained.
On one document I was Victor Mather, on the other Victor Mather III.
The “III” seemed to befuddle several inspectors, and my explanation about being named for both my father and my great-grandfather made little impact. I was taken to the bare room to wait, while my guide — and, more worryingly, my documents — disappeared.
Relief came after a somewhat anxious 30 minutes: The always polite and friendly attendant returned, handed back my documents, and put me back in line. I’m still not exactly sure what sealed my reprieve, but I finally got out of the airport three hours after my plane touched down. I had made it to the Olympics.
You can’t blame Japan for being deeply concerned about an onslaught of people from all over the world during a pandemic. The rigorous process will no doubt do a good job in keeping out many of those who might spread coronavirus. And perhaps a few Jrs., III’s and IV’s.
TOKYO — The Olympic Games may profess to be about noble ideals like excellence, friendship and respect. But you had better believe you can still bet on them.
There are many great teams arriving at the Olympics, of course, and at least a few look really hard to beat. But which one is the biggest favorite, the true stone-cold lock?
Let’s start with the American women’s soccer team. With a 2019 World Cup win under their belts and stars like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe leading their squad again, the Americans are the clear favorites in the women’s tournament. According to Pinnacle, a Curaçao-based site that offers odds on nearly every Olympic event, the team has odds of -157; that means you must bet $157 on the team to win $100.
Prefer the South Korean women archers? They have won eight straight team titles, every one ever contested at the Games. They are an even bigger favorite than the U.S. women’s soccer team at -261.
How about the American women’s softball team, whose sport is returning to the Games after 13 years? They are -294. And the U.S. men’s basketball team, despite a couple of stumbles over the past week and the loss of several players to coronavirus protocols, is -329.
But despite the high-profile success of these teams, we haven’t even gotten to the biggest favorites. The Sinkovic brothers of Croatia seem nearly unbeatable in the coxless pair rowing event. They are listed at -693.
And don’t bet against Russia in artistic swimming (formerly synchronized swimming): Its team is -900 in the duet and -1,200 in the team event.
Which brings us to the biggest favorite of them all. The United States women’s basketball team has won the last six Olympic gold medals and the last three World Cup titles. It arrives with a roster in which every player is an international star, names like A’ja Wilson and Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird.
Their odds at this writing are -1,938. In plain terms, you would have to risk $1,938 to collect a measly hundred bucks if they win another gold.
On the one hand, it might seem to be the easiest hundred you’ll ever make.
TOKYO — While the Olympics may be celebrated as a showcase of athletic feats and global harmony, they have also become a multibillion-dollar marketing opportunity for the world’s most famous brands.
No company was better positioned to scoop up the immense profits from this bonanza than Dentsu, an advertising goliath hard-wired into nearly every major institution in Japan.
As a gatekeeper to the world’s third-largest economy, the company has become a major figure in international sports. It played a prominent role in Tokyo’s Olympic bid, then was named the Games’ exclusive advertising partner, bringing in a record-shattering $3.6 billion from Japanese sponsors.
But the pandemic has played havoc with the company’s plans, and presented a serious test of its skill at message control.
The advertising campaigns and promotional events that sponsors usually mount in the months before the Olympics have been canceled or pared down. And now, with the Games about to begin, Toyota said that it would not run Olympics-themed television ads in Japan during the event, reflecting its unpopularity in the host nation.
Still, even with its challenges, Dentsu remains an unparalleled force in Japan, an invisible hand behind an Olympics that would not have come to Tokyo without its efforts.
Dentsu was one of the first ad agencies to recognize how international sporting events could raise clients’ profiles abroad and help them break into new markets. Its ties to the Olympics stretch back to 1964, when it handled public relations for the first Tokyo Games. It led the bid for the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, and was the natural choice to spearhead the effort to bring the Olympics back to Tokyo.
“If you’re going to do sports marketing business in Japan, they’re kind of your first and last stop, to be honest. They hold a lot of the cards,” said Terrence Burns, a sports consultant and former International Olympic Committee executive.
The separation of sports and politics has long been one of the most carefully protected, and fiercely debated, values of the Olympic Games. Rules exist to police that divide, and athletes have been punished — and even ejected from the Games — for breaking them.
But in a move reflecting the influence of a remarkable, ongoing outpouring of activism from athletes, the International Olympic Committee recently released new guidelines offering Olympians a chance to “express their views” on the field of play before the start of a competition, including during athlete introductions.
Under the new rules, athletes competing this month at the Summer Games in Tokyo now will theoretically be allowed to wear an article of clothing (a shirt with a slogan or a glove, for example) or make a symbolic gesture (like kneeling or raising a fist) to express their views on an issue before the start of their events.
They still will not be allowed to conduct any sort of demonstration on the field of play, on the podium during medal ceremonies, in the Olympic athletes’ village or at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.
It was a small but symbolically significant concession, softening the I.O.C.’s longstanding rule against protest at the Games, but it fell short of what many athletes, including many from the United States, had called for in recent months.
It was, however, notable, particularly considering that the I.O.C. earlier this year had reaffirmed its ban on protests and political messages at the Olympics after growing calls from broad segments of its athlete population for more leniency on such issues. But the organization had also signaled a desire to look for new and creative ways to allow for self-expression, and it apparently found one.
TOKYO — The U.S. men’s national basketball team traveled to Tokyo on Monday without guard Zach LaVine, who entered coronavirus health and safety protocols.
In a statement, Team USA said it was hopeful LaVine could take up his place in Japan later this week. The U.S. men’s basketball team had reshuffled its roster last week after it lost guard Bradley Beal to health and safety protocols and forward Kevin Love withdrew from participation.
U.S. women’s basketball also suffered a blow with the news that Katie Lou Samuelson, a member of the 3×3 Olympics team, would miss the Games following a positive test result. Samuelson said she was fully vaccinated.
“Competing in the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl and I hope someday soon, I can come back to realize that dream,” Samuelson, 24, wrote in an Instagram post.
Earlier Monday, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee confirmed that an alternate on the women’s gymnastics team had tested positive for the coronavirus while in training in Chiba Prefecture outside Tokyo.
Despite being vaccinated, Kara Eaker, 18, of Grain Valley, Mo., began a 10- to 14-day quarantine, her coach, Al Fong, said in a text message. He added that she “feels fine.”
Fong said that Leanne Wong, another alternate and Eaker’s teammate at his GAGE Center gym in Blue Springs, Mo., was also under quarantine, expected to last until about July 31, because she is considered a close contact. Wong, who is 17 and from Overland Park, Kansas, said at the Olympic trials last month that she had not been vaccinated.
The opening ceremony is Friday and the first competitions are Wednesday. But organizers of the Tokyo Olympics are struggling to manage public anxiety about the Games after a cluster of coronavirus cases that threaten to overshadow the festivities.
As about 20,000 athletes, coaches, referees and other officials have poured into Japan in recent days, more than two dozen of them have tested positive for the virus, including three cases within the Olympic Village. An additional 33 staff members or contractors who are Japanese residents working on the Games have tested positive.
Olympics organizers have said their measures — including repeated testing, social distancing and restrictions on movement — would limit, but not eliminate, coronavirus cases. The Games, originally scheduled for 2020, were postponed a year in the hopes the pandemic would have eased and they could herald a triumphant return to normal.
Instead, they have become a reminder of the staying power of the virus and have fed a debate over whether Japan and the International Olympic Committee have their priorities straight.
Nneka Ogwumike’s last-ditch efforts to take the court in Tokyo were crushed on Monday night after the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her request to play for Nigeria’s national women’s basketball team.
Ogwumike, winner of the W.N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2016 and a former No. 1 overall draft pick, was not selected for the U.S. team, a decision that stunned the basketball world. But Ogwumike, who was born and raised in Texas to Nigerian parents, applied to compete for Nigeria, where she has dual citizenship. Chiney Ogwumike, also a former No. 1 overall draft pick and Nneka’s younger sister, applied alongside her sister to play for Nigeria.
FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, denied Nneka’s request, citing her “significant involvement” with U.S.A. Basketball. Chiney, who has spent significantly less time with the U.S. national team, was cleared to play for Nigeria as a naturalized citizen.
The Ogwumikes turned to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, hoping the Swiss-based panel that is considered the final arbiter of disputes in international sport would allow both of them a spot on Nigeria’s roster until a hearing could occur.
Ogwumike’s appeal to FIBA was based on the governing body’s regulations that allow exceptions “in the interest of the development of basketball.” Nigeria is currently ranked No. 17 in the world and the addition of the Ogwumikes would have made the country a medal contender, said Dawn Staley, the coach of the U.S. team. It would also have given a continent that has never won an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball a huge boost.
In the end, Chiney and Erica Ogwumike, a former standout at Rice who is a medical student, are on Nigeria’s roster.
Elizabeth Williams, a center for the Atlanta Dream, had also filed a petition with the court to play for Nigeria but the court rejected her petition as well on Monday.
Toyota said on Monday that it had decided against running Olympics-themed television advertisements in Japan, a symbolic vote of no confidence from one of the country’s most influential companies just days before the Games begin amid a national state of emergency.
The Japanese public has expressed strong opposition to the Games — delayed for a year because of the pandemic — with many worrying that the influx of visitors from around the world could turn it into a Covid-19 superspreader event, undoing national efforts to keep coronavirus levels low.
Toyota will refrain from airing television ads at home during the Games, and its chief executive, Akio Toyoda, will not attend the opening ceremony, a company spokesman told local news media during an online news conference.
“Various aspects of this Olympics aren’t accepted by the public,” said the spokesman, Jun Nagata, according to the business daily Yomiuri Shimbun.
The ads will still be shown in other markets, Toyota Motor North America said in a statement. “In the U.S., the campaign has already been shown nationally and will continue to be shown as planned with our media partners during the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” the statement said.
The company had prepared ads for the event but will not air them because of concerns that emphasizing its connection to the Games could create a backlash, said a person familiar with the company’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Toyota will continue its commitments to supporting Olympic athletes and providing transportation services during the Games, a spokesman said.
The company’s decision is “a big body blow to the Olympics,” said David Droga, the founder of the Droga5 ad agency.
“You’d think that Toyota would be through thick and thin all in, but obviously the situation is more polarizing than we realize,” he said.
The vast majority of the Japanese public is opposed to holding the Games — set to begin on Friday — under current conditions, polling shows, with many calling for them to be canceled outright.
The Japanese authorities and Olympic officials have played down the concerns, saying strict precautions against the coronavirus will allow the Games to be held safely.
Anxieties have continued to mount, however. This month, Tokyo entered its fourth state of emergency in an effort to stop a sudden rise in virus cases as the country faces the more contagious Delta variant. Cases, which remain low in comparison with many other developed nations, have exceeded 1,000 a day in the city, raising apprehension that measures that had succeeded in controlling the spread of the coronavirus could be losing their effectiveness.
Further complicating the situation is a steady drip of news reports about Olympic staff and athletes testing positive for the illness after arriving in Japan.
Toyota became a top Olympic sponsor in 2015, joining an elite class of corporate supporters that pay top dollar for the right to display the iconic rings of the Games in their advertising.
Until the pandemic hit, the company was one of the most visible supporters of the Olympics. In the run-up to the event, much of Tokyo’s taxi fleet was replaced with a sleek, new Toyota model prominently featuring the company’s logo alongside the Olympic rings. And the company pledged to make the event a showcase for its technological innovations, including self-driving vehicles to ferry athletes around the Olympic Village.
Toyota’s move could prompt other brands to follow suit, but several advertising experts do not expect a ripple effect.
“If you’re a Coca-Cola type, I don’t think it’ll be a retreat — the benefits of being a global sponsor will still work its magic in the U.S. and all the other countries,” Mr. Droga said. “It’s different when you’re in the center, actually in Japan, because that’s where the biggest contrast is going to be, where the Olympics aren’t like previous Olympics.”
Many companies are afraid of sacrificing more exposure, said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.
“My guess is that they’re going to try and push through so that they don’t lose the investment completely,” he said. “There’s an interesting calculus: If I pull out, how does that get translated in every language? In certain countries, it could seem like I did the right thing, but in others, it could be that I abandoned the one thing that gave the world hope.”
As many of her competitors spent their days preparing for the Olympics, Joan Poh spent much of the past year working long shifts at a Singapore hospital.
Ms. Poh, a 30-year-old rower who will represent Singapore at the Tokyo Games, had been training and competing full time. But she put that on hold in April of last year when she returned to her job as a nurse after the government put out a call for frontline medical reinforcements.
“In a time of pandemic, going back to work felt like a calling,” she said. “When I’m at work, I’m 100 percent a nurse. When I’m training, I’m 100 percent a rower. It’s always about finding that balance and making it work.”
After resuming eight- to 10-hour hospital shifts in the renal unit at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Ms. Poh sought ways to continue to train. She squeezed in workouts before and after work, sometimes skipping meals. To make up for lost time, she would spend her entire weekend on the water.
Though Ms. Poh did not work in a Covid ward, she was one of a handful of specially trained dialysis nurses at the hospital. She often had to treat patients suspected of having the coronavirus and feared she might contract it herself.
Ms. Poh will also have to be on guard against the virus at this year’s Games, which are unlike any other as organizers try to minimize the risk of transmission. Spectators will be barred from most events, and athletes are discouraged from giving hugs, high-fives and handshakes. Out of about 20,000 people traveling to Japan for the Games, dozens have tested positive for the virus, including three people inside the athletes’ village.
But as a nurse, Ms. Poh plans to take precautions. Her manager, Koh Yu Han, who is with Ms. Poh in Tokyo, said that despite attracting stares, they both make a point of wiping down equipment and tables. They carry their backpacks at all times to avoid putting them down and becoming contaminated. When traveling to a qualifying race in Tokyo in May, Ms. Koh said, she and Ms. Poh were the only passengers on a bus full of athletes to sanitize their seats with alcohol.
Just 23 athletes will represent Singapore at the Olympics this year, and Ms. Poh is the only female rower. She is only the second Singaporean rower to reach the Olympics, placing 12th in the qualifying regatta.
Her event, women’s single sculls, will take place on Friday.
Ms. Poh did not first get into a boat until she was a teenager, but quickly fell in love with being on the water. Her parents could not afford sports leagues or professional coaching, but she still found ways to practice.
She joined a dragon boat team when she was 17, honing her paddling skills on a traditional long boat before learning how to sail and row a scull. In 2019, she took an extended leave from her hospital job in order to train and compete full time in Australia.
The past year, splitting time between the gym and the hospital, she said, only increased her drive.
“I understood from when I was young that sport is a luxury,” she said. “To be able to pursue your dream is a luxury. And therefore, if you can, then you must.”
Surfing has been trying to get onto the Olympic program for years, and its supporters pushed for it to be included in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, a surfing hot spot with world-class waves and a picturesque backdrop.
Instead, its Olympic debut will come in Japan, a country with ample coastline but few world-class breaks. Think Jersey Shore instead of North Shore. And no one is sure what to expect.
Surf conditions can be fickle, day by day and hour by hour, even at the best breaks on the globe. The concern is that bad timing in Japan might make the first Olympic competition a dud.
On Tuesday, Olympic surfers got their first look at Tsurigasaki Beach (sometimes called Shidashita Beach by locals) in Ichinomiya, where the surfing competition is scheduled to begin on Sunday. As predicted, and feared, the waves were small, breaking near shore in waist-high water. The forecast is for bigger swells, perhaps nudged by a tropical storm forming south of Japan, early next week.
But not everyone is bothered by the uncertainty.
“My chances are good, super good,” said Kolohe Andino, a member of the United States team from San Clemente, Calif. “I grew up surfing similar waves, my equipment’s really good for that type of waves, and my attitude toward poor waves is good for me: When I’ve done good in the past is when the waves are bad, and everyone’s kind of like, ‘Oh, man,’ and whining about it. I thrive in that.”