The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, postponed to July and August but still named 2020, will be a milestone demonstrating the best of Japan and helping the world celebrate when the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end the corner goes. Or it will be a costly and unnecessary event that most people in the country want to be canceled and that unnecessarily puts thousands of athletes and spectators at risk of falling victim to a resurgent coronavirus. As if the world didn’t have enough to argue with.
Officially, there is no doubt that the Games will continue this summer, the Olympics on July 23rd and the Paralympics on August 24th. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in his New Year’s message that the Games “symbolize the unity of the world” and “We will thoroughly advance our preparations in order to have safe games.” He remained confident even when he reluctantly imposed a new state of emergency on Jan. 7 when cases there rose, although the numbers remain small compared to Europe and North America. Under pressure from regional leaders, he added seven more prefectures on January 15, covering about half of the country’s population. In an international comparison, the measures remain uniquely mild. People are encouraged to avoid unnecessary travel, the business community is encouraged to let people work from home, and restaurants and bars are asked to close until 8 p.m.
Another ardent supporter of the Games was Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who sees an opportunity for the Games to highlight her city at a time when she is trying to reclaim some of her earlier fame as a regional hub for business in Asia. As the attractiveness of Hong Kong declines after the crackdown by China and the fact that Singapore is becoming too expensive even for foreigners, the government of the metropolis of Tokyo has started a marketing program that is aimed particularly at high-tech and fintech companies. The Olympic and Paralympic Games are an opportunity to showcase your goods. Plans for the Games range from using fuel cell buses to transporting spectators (assuming there are some) to making the city carbon neutral, at least for the days of the opening and closing ceremonies – an early test of the much tougher government goal To make Japan
Japanese corporate sponsors have predictably lined up to support the effort. All 68 domestic sponsors have agreed to go ahead and collect additional sponsorship fees of $ 210 million. The group includes many of Japan’s largest corporate giants, including the country’s two largest airlines and other travel-related companies that have been hard hit by the pandemic.
Koike and other government officials see a bit of nostalgia in all of this, too. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics are still cited today as a turning point for the nation, a chance to show the world how Japan recovered from the devastation of World War II and how it reformed from an aggressive empire in less than two decades has-seekers for a model for peace and democracy. Aside from direct spending on the stadiums and other facilities needed for the Games, the government embarked on a broader buying spree that included the first tier of the Shinkansen bullet train network, which remains a point of national pride. The democratic and economic revival of 1964 was made all the more acute when the country was originally supposed to host the 1940 Olympic Games, which would have had a very different tone.
Less well known is the fact that much of the post-war construction turned out to be less durable. Most of it has been torn down, and Tokyo’s rapidly thrown-together expressway network has had to be upgraded bit by bit to meet anything close to modern standards. Also rarely discussed is the fact that the athletes of the time had to contend with the most polluted air in a big city, as industry and growth took precedence over the environment.
This time there is no lack of critics of the planned games. Political commentator Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan, said the idea of continuing the games was “insane”. Kingston wrote in the Washington Post: “There are worrying signs that the Olympics could become the superspreader event of all superspreader events.” He noted that the vaccination program for Japan is still in the early planning stages. The vaccinations are not supposed to start until March and leave a small window before the games. In addition, vaccinations are not mandatory for athletes. There is also the ethical question of offering vaccines to healthy young people when the elderly and other vulnerable people in many poorer countries are likely to be waiting for their chance.
He is not alone with his criticism. A poll by the national news agency Kyodo on Jan. 10 found that only 14 percent of respondents believed the Olympics should go ahead as planned. It found that 35 percent wanted the games to be canceled, while 45 percent wanted the games to be postponed again.
Delaying the event doesn’t seem like an option, however, given the difficulty of adding one of the biggest sporting events in the world to the global calendar, as well as the problems of keeping the venues operational for an even longer period of time and explaining this to athletes who use them have to train even longer. Tokyo Games Organizing Committee chairman former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said Jan. 12 that further delay was impossible. “I think we have a very difficult decision to make between February and March,” he said at a press conference.
An apparent lack of public support is not a new issue for the Tokyo Games. From the start, low public support was seen as an obstacle to Tokyo’s initial 2013 offer. Surveys showed less enthusiasm than in other candidate cities. Even then, polls showed that only 47 percent of Tokyo’s were supportive, while a July 2020 poll found a support rate of 24 percent. The negative views stem from general dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases rose again in the winter, despite Japan performing well compared to other large countries. The total number of cases during the pandemic is now 300,000 nationwide, roughly the same as the state of Iowa, while the number of deaths per million from COVID-19 is less than 3 percent of the US number.
Another problem raised by the critics is the ever increasing price of the games. In its original offer, Japan offered a “compact game” at a price of US $ 7.3 billion, a significant decrease from the London 2012 Games, which cost around US $ 15 billion. Given the delays and other issues, the Tokyo Organizing Committee put the total spending at $ 15.4 billion, while other estimates say the real figure is much higher. A comprehensive review by the government audit committee in 2018 found the projected total cost to be closer to $ 26 billion. Tokyo organizers say that figure includes incidental expenses that are not part of their budget.
The organizers also say they are trying to cut costs by focusing on the athletes and the sporting events rather than all of the hoopla that have become part of the Olympics. Mori, chairman of the Tokyo Games organizing committee, said the games could be played without a spectator. He noted that this has become the norm in the sports world over the past year and that he expects the government to make a final decision on the matter by May.
An abridged game could also be a harbinger of the future, and at least a partial response to those who say the world will soon run out of cities that can bear the heavy financial and social burden of the Olympics. “The Tokyo 2020 Games will also be a new model for the games of the future,” said Mikako Kotani, a former Olympic gold medalist who is now the Games Director of Sports and responsible for coordination with the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee. “I think COVID-19 will open the door to a new era for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” she said in a press release.
The cost numbers are now just a drop in the bucket for a country that has been printing money for years before coronavirus-triggered spending. National government borrowing for this fiscal year is expected to be around $ 1.08 trillion, more than double the previous record high in 2009 following the global financial crisis. This will further cement Japan’s leadership as the world’s most indebted government at around 230 percent of annual GDP.
With these numbers, the additional cost of hosting the Olympics becomes a rounding error. Additionally, losing the Games would leave the world’s next global sporting event to the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. In the Asian rivalry realm, this is a handover that Japan doesn’t want to see, and a few billion dollars is a low price to pay.
But the final fate of the Games probably doesn’t lie with Japan after all. The decision to postpone the Olympics last March was only made after some national sports federations made it clear that they would not attend. Even a partial boycott of the games for health reasons could change the calculation again – and lead to another failure of the Tokyo Games.