For most of 2021, sports have seemed to be about progress.

Fans are back in stadiums. The roar of the crowd is back. Events that didn’t happen in 2020, like the British Open and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, returned. Masks are gone around ballparks, stadiums and arenas, as the percentage of vaccinated Americans climbed across the country.

That feeling of normalcy that everyone likes to talk about? We’ve been seeing it.

And then came the 2020, now 2021, Summer Olympics. And like the boxers who will be going for the gold in Tokyo, the coronavirus came back off the ropes and showed it’s not done throwing hooks.

Watching and reading coverage of the Olympic Games — which will officially begin with the opening ceremonies Friday — feels like stepping through a portal back into 2020. It’s like watching the images we’ve come to see in sports, such as the raucous PGA Championship crowd behind Phil Mickelson or the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship celebration, fade like a movie effect into the bleakness of last year, when COVID-19 was at its most rampant and society was at its most paralyzed.

The conversations around the Olympics aren’t focused where they normally would be: on potential record-smashing athletes, promising up-and-comers, and which nations will be standing tallest when the medals are counted. Instead, they’re…well, they sound like what we heard last year.

They’re about positive cases that are popping up left and right. They’re about the undercurrent of concern that the virus will run rampant through everyone involved. They’re about no foreigners being allowed on the premises. Athletes are facing the reality of competing without fans in the stands. Sponsors, athletes and teams are pulling out of the Olympics, the ceremonies, or both.

It’s become a watered-down spectacle, and the people in Japan and the organizers of the Games are noticing. A New York Times article in May showed that the majority of Japanese citizens didn’t want the Games in their capital city, due to concerns with the virus. And even as late as the start of this week, there were BBC reports that Toshiro Muto, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, was considering a last-minute cancellation of the Games altogether.

The idea of the Olympics as a “let’s get this over with” burden is as strange as it gets. It’s a massive product, rivaled in scope only by the Super Bowl and the World Cup. When you host the Olympics, you’re the center of the world for two-plus weeks. The financial and labor costs to get them up and running are a headache, but the increase in attention and exposure can make it all worthwhile.

These Olympics, however, have felt like a chore. It’s like Tokyo would love to leave the Games on the block by its house for free pickup, like a junked sofa.

In addition to sometimes providing a massive economic boost to its host city, as was the case with Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in ’88 and Atlanta in ’96, the Olympics — at least, the Games themselves — are always associated with what’s best about sports. They’re about pride, representing your country, and being the no-doubt-about-it best in the world at something. The athletes who come to the Olympics have spent the last four years training for this and only this. For many, it’s the only shot they’ll get. In the American team sports we obsess over, seasons are on the line. In the Olympics, lifetimes can be.

It’s what makes the Olympics so entertaining, so dramatic, and so cool. It’s why everyone who wins gold, be it someone in track and field, judo, rhythmic gymnastics, wrestling or water polo, has a mile-wide smile on the podium. They’ve become defined by that success. No matter what else happens, they always have that moment, and that label as a gold medalist.

It’s so strange and unfortunate that the event that will still feature all of that is shrouded in this fog of concern, skepticism and malaise. It’s, again, a throwback to last year, when we watched a Masters that didn’t feel like the Masters. And a World Series that didn’t feel like the World Series. And a Stanley Cup Final that was played in, when? September?

Perhaps, though, those examples from last season can provide an encouraging example for these Olympics. The NFL playoffs were still an entertaining product. Baseball, hockey and basketball all had postseasons that, if you could get past the aesthetic differences, were as compelling on the field as they normally are.

We saw last year that having sports was enough. Not nearly as good. But way better than nothing.

Hopefully that’s the case this time in Tokyo. Hopefully, an Olympics that will look so different will still have so much in common with the ones that came before.

But the spectacle is diminished. There’s no question about that.

COVID may be declining from its peak. But as we’ve seen, it’s not done ruining things just yet.

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