Olympic torch

Torchbearers hand over the flame of the Olympic torch during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games torch relay in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 17, 2021. 


Hashimoto Olympic flame is a classic dilemma tale

What you need to know:

  • Ms Seiko Hashimoto’s dilemma is whether to hold or to cancel the Olympic Games, in view of the relentlessly volatile Covid-19 developments.
  • The event was supposed to be held last year, but when the coronavirus pandemic initially struck, it was postponed to this year.

I recently heard a youthful preacher quote an ancient Roman proverb, “Dum spiro, spero (while I breathe, I hope).” A close approximation from our own orature is “mja hatindi rehema ali hai duniani (a human being lacks not mercies while still alive on earth).” I first heard that from our great teacher and poet, Sheikh Saidi Karama, whom my colleagues and I interviewed and recorded in our research adventures on Mombasa Island back in the late 1990s.

They are not easy to render across languages, those gems of folk knowledge, because each bit of them is packed with subtle devices of sound, reference and inference. Moreover, their significance keeps changing as we apply them to our own experiences. That “breathing” motif in our first quote, for example, carries a poignantly deep meaning for us listeners in the George Floyd and Covid-19 era.

Some classical folklorists and orature scholars dubbed proverbs and other formulaic oral forms “protean” genres. Like Proteus, the mythical Greek old man of the sea, they keep shifting and changing their forms and functions as they move from one situation to another. What got me thinking of the protean coding, however, is the situation in which Ms Seiko Hashimoto, the President of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Committee finds herself, just about a month to the opening day of the global event.

My Waganda friends would call it the proverbial “snake in the clay cooking pot”. If you leave it there, you will not eat because you will have no access to the pot. If you resort to hitting the snake, you will still not eat because your pot will be shattered to smithereens. That is the nature of a dilemma, mtanziko, as they call it in Kiswahili.

To hold or cancel the Games

Ms Hashimoto’s dilemma is whether to hold or to cancel the Olympic Games, in view of the relentlessly volatile Covid-19 developments, in the whole world and in the host country itself. The event was supposed to be held last year (hence the moniker “Tokyo 2020”), but when the coronavirus pandemic initially struck, it was postponed to this year. The presumption then was that we would have gotten over the worst of the disease threat by this time, but alas, the war is far from won.

Those, including many Japanese, who are opposed to holding the games feel and argue that they may easily turn into a Covid-19 “super-spreader” event for both international participants and their hosts. Pessimists even mention the possibility of a “Tokyo 2020 Olympics” variant of the virus emerging from the games. That is one sharp horn of the dilemma.

The other horn is cancelling the games. Simple as that might sound, it would be incredibly difficult to implement at this stage. Humongous material and human investments have been made into the games, and it is unimaginable that they can all be left to go down the drain because of the fear of a probably manageable though admittedly difficult threat. We in East Africa, for example, would be heart-broken about the strenuous training and qualifying efforts of our world-class athletes

Anyway, it appears now that Ms Hashimoto (the sound of whose name strangely suggests “fire” to our Swahili ears) has decided to take the bull by both horns and hold the games, come what may. Incidentally, mention of the horns reminds us that the “dilemma” was also a concept from ancient orature, of a bull charging full tilt at you. Taking the bull by both horns means smartly seizing the clashing choices and rising above them.

Did I tell you once of how our late friend Ken Walibora was amused by my suggestion that we should call horns of a dilemma “pembe za mtanziko” in Kiswahili? You know we have a subclass of oral narratives, in fasihi simulizi (orature) called ngano za mtanziko (dilemma tales). That is where I got the idea.

Unity and solidarity

Our super-novelist, Assumpta Matei, has a few succinct words about dilemma tales in her enlightening text on orature, in Kiswahili, Fani ya Fasihi Simulizi. Isn’t all life, after all, a kind of dilemma tale, in which we always have to make the smartest choices that occur to us and be ready to deal with the consequences? On the grapevine, I hear that Dr Matei is about to spring a pleasant surprise on us English readers. Should I tell you more or should I let it be a real surprise? There is the beginning of a dilemma.

Back to Seiko Hashimoto, a prominent Olympian in her own right, and her organising committee, we can only wish them the best in their bold decision to put the world’s best talent on show. Watching in action the fastest, highest and strongest of our race, as the Olympic motto (citius, altius, fortius) has it, will certainly have an uplifting effect on us. Most importantly, Tokyo 2020, bringing the world community together for the simple but essential celebration of the beauty of its humanity, will inspire us with the two values that we desperately need in these trying times.

The first is the unity and solidarity that all members of our species need for our survival, regardless of the superficial differences of geography, ethnicity, ideology or economy that might divide us. Secondly, our sportspeople’s expected unequalled performances in the various disciplines of the games will remind and reassure us of the invincible power of our bodies and spirits in the face of any challenges, including the abominable coronavirus.

Sadly for Seiko Hashimoto, however, her compatriot and Japan’s best-known athlete, Naomi Osaka, is unlikely to show up for the Tokyo Olympics. This is not due to the Covid-19 threat, but Osaka’s personal problems that our colleague Abigail Arunga outlined and explained to us in one of her recent articles. This is a disappointment to tennis lovers, like Dr Joyce Nyairo and me, but we can confidently look up to our own Serena Williams and Coco Gauff to represent us adequately. May Hashimoto’s fire burn brightly in the Olympic Flame.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]