It was a bizarre attempt at normality in highly abnormal times. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, visited Tokyo last week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic throttled Japan. In a highly scripted set of photo-ops throughout Tokyo, Bach projected a brand of buoyant optimism untroubled by the precariousness of our collective historical moment.
Bach vowed that the Tokyo Olympics in the shadow of the coronavirus would “be a light at the end of the dark tunnel.” But anti-Olympics activists in Japan’s capital were not buying Bach’s sophistry. For them, the “light at the end of the dark tunnel” is a gold-plated freight train careening toward their city. Protesters followed Bach around town, highlighting the absurdity of staging a wholly optional sports spectacle in the midst of a savage pandemic.
Back in March, in response to the initial explosion of Covid-19, the IOC and local Olympic organizers in Tokyo postponed the 2020 Summer Games. While other sports leagues slammed on the brakes, the IOC dragged its feet, with its president justifying the slow-motion response by admitting that he was relying on Donald Trump’s baseless public assurances that the pandemic would blow over by mid-April. Were it not for an upsurge of athletes and sports federations expressing concern and threatening to boycott, the IOC may well have plowed forward, public health be damned.
Protests were organized by the Tokyo-based activist umbrella group called Okotowari (loosely translated as “No thank you, Olympics”) and the grassroots collective Hangorin No Kai (“the Anti-Olympic Group”). Simultaneous satellite demonstrations took place in Kyoto as well as Okinawa, Sapporo, and Fukushima. To mark Bach’s arrival in Tokyo, anti-Olympics activists took to the streets with signs reading “Cancellation! Abolition!,” “Go to Hell!,” and “Protect your life from the Olympics!”
Activists questioned using trailer-loads of public money to keep the Olympics on life support while actual humans might require such measures. One clarion call from the streets of Tokyo was “Save lives, not the Olympics!” Originally slated to cost $7.3 billion, the Tokyo Games’ price tag has spiraled to nearly four times that, according to an audit by the Japanese government, with all but around $5 billion coming from public coffers. With postponement, the five-ring bill continues to mount.
Activists dogged Bach as he made his way around Tokyo. They appeared outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters in Shinjuku, chanting, “Abolish IOC!” and “No Olympics anywhere!” Protesters also flew banners at the new National Stadium that was built for the Olympics. The stadium displaced residents from the Kasumigaoka apartment complex, fracturing the working-class community in the shadow of the stadium. Amazingly, some people who were displaced by the Olympic juggernaut in 2020 also lost their homes because of the 1964 Tokyo Games.
At the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters, the IOC president broke from his security phalanx to confront the protesters, asking them, “Do you want to speak or just shout at me?” Bach was quickly whisked away and no discussion transpired. At a press conference afterward, journalist Kosuke Inagaki of Asahi Shimbun asked Bach about the skirmish. Bach responded, smirking all the while, by inaccurately minimizing the number of activists—“It was three people in front of the hall with a great megaphone”—and claiming that “I wanted to listen” but “they were shouting at me.” Referring to one protester with a megaphone, he stated, “Obviously she did not want to have a dialogue, so she could not explain to me what she really wanted. She just kept shouting at me.” He concluded by asking, “How can you talk to people who just keep shouting through a megaphone at you?”
Bach was referring to Misako Ichimura, a longtime anti-Olympics activist with Hangorin No Kai. She told The Nation, “First of all, I wasn’t shouting. When Bach approached me, I was about to turn toward him, but I was surrounded and held by police officers.” Ichimura said that from her vantage, “Bach’s impatience was clearly evident.” She added, “To say I didn’t choose dialogue is not entirely fair. This is exactly what the Olympics does—it uses ‘fair play’ to hide privilege and power.” She’s right. Bach’s impromptu plea for “dialogue” deliberately obscures power relations. After all, activists in Tokyo have never been given the opportunity to sit down with Olympic grandees to “have a dialogue.” For five-ring power brokers, boxing out critical voices has almost become an Olympic sport.
Most people in Japan have moved toward the position of anti-Olympics activists. Hiroki Ogasawara, a professor of sociology and cultural studies at Kobe University in Japan, told us, “People here are already disillusioned, not only by the long-promoted promise and prospect of Olympics but also by confusing words and comments by officials, including Bach himself.”
This month, a poll by TV Asahi found that almost 60 percent wanted the Tokyo Olympics to be either postponed or canceled. Last summer, a Kyodo News poll found that only 24 percent of respondents were keen to hold the Tokyo Games as rescheduled for July 2021. Around 36 percent thought the Games should be further postponed and 34 percent preferred outright cancellation. A survey of almost 13,000 Japanese companies had similar results, with 26 percent favoring postponement and 28 percent preferring cancellation—staggering numbers given that the Olympics are a profit magnet for many businesses.
Meanwhile, Olympic power brokers ram ahead like somnambulistic zealots under the spell of dollars and yen. For them, the front-of-the-mind concern is always the Olympic machine and its component parts, not the host city. The IOC president stated the quiet part out loud when he asserted that the “top priority” for the Tokyo Olympics continues to be the health and safety of Olympic athletes as well as ticket holders. Not mentioned? The everyday people in Tokyo whose health could be jeopardized by Olympics-going tourists from coronavirus-soaked countries like the United States. IOC honcho John Coates, the Australian who chairs the IOC Coordination Commission for the Tokyo Games, followed Bach’s lead, stating, “We have to make sure the Village is the safest place in Tokyo.” The IOC’s priorities are clear.
In the kind of remark that gives epidemiologists nightmares, Bach insisted that the Games could still happen with stadiums full of spectators. The Japan Times reported, “Organizers are moving forward in lockstep with plans to host the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games next summer with spectators.” For Olympic organizers, the only question that remains is how many fans.
Olympic exceptionalism is a hell of a drug. But it can’t compete with the coronavirus. On the day Bach left town, Tokyo saw a surge in infections, with nearly 500 new cases reported in the city and around 2,000 across Japan. Both were single-day records. “The situation in Tokyo is serious,” Satoko Itani, a professor of sports, gender, and sexuality studies at Kansai University in Japan, told us. “Bringing tens of thousands of people to Japan for the Olympics will risk not only further spreading the virus but also stressing the medical workers who have been asked to volunteer for Tokyo 2020 because the Olympics are scheduled for the hottest part of summer.” Beneath all the Olympic bombast spouted by Back, Tokyo faces a very simple question: people or profits. It’s in the best interests of the people to postpone the Olympics until a vaccine has made its way through the population. It’s in the best interests of the Olympic profit machine to push ahead with the Games, people be damned.