The Tokyo Olympics Are in Trouble

The Tokyo Olympics Are in Trouble

The pandemic has driven support for the Summer Olympics in Japan to historically low levels. 


From the perspective of the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government, the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo are simply too big to fail. Yet failure is still very much on the table. With less than 100 days until the scheduled start, Covid-19 cases are on the rise across Japan. Anger about the Games is also on the rise in Japan, with “Cancelling Olympics” trending on Twitter there last week. One recent poll found that more than seven in 10 people in Japan do not want the Olympics to happen this summer, with 39 percent preferring outright cancellation and another 33 percent favoring further postponement.

Even some elected officials appear to be waffling. Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, stated on Japanese television, “If it becomes impossible, then it should be called off. What is the point of the Olympics if it’s responsible for spreading infections?” MP Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party said staging the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was flat-out “impossible.” Demand for the cancellation of the Olympics is on the rise.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Olympic boosters have been acting like blinkered greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit around the racetrack. Tokyo Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto has insisted that the Games will go on. Hashimoto, who recently took over the job after previous president Yoshiro Mori was ousted for blatant sexism, acknowledged “a variety of concerns,” but said, “As the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee we are not thinking about canceling the games.” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted that, despite the surge in Covid-19 cases in Japan, there has been “no change to the government position to do everything to achieve a safe and secure Olympics.” Sugahas parroted the International Olympic Committee’s flimsy proclamation that the Tokyo Olympics are “a beacon of hope to the world” and “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Enter the public health scholars. In a scathing essay that appeared in the academic journal The BMJ, Kazuki Shimizu, Devi Sridhar, Kiyosu Taniguchi, and Kenji Shibuya wrote, “Plans to hold the Olympic and Paralympic games this summer must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency. The whole global community recognizes the need to contain the pandemic and save lives. Holding Tokyo 2020 for domestic political and economic purposes—ignoring scientific and moral imperatives—is contradictory to Japan’s commitment to global health and human security.”

In Japan, less than 1 percent of the population has been vaccinated, with a mere 0.4 percent having received two doses of the vaccine. Complicating matters, Japan’s population is skeptical of vaccinations in general. According to a study in The Lancet, Japan’s vaccine confidence is among the lowest in the world: less than 10 percent of those who participated in the study strongly agreed that vaccines are safe.

Meanwhile, amid the surge in cases in Japan, the government is throwing more and more money at the Olympics—and the Games’ costs are already running around four times higher than their original $7.3 billion budget (that’s almost $30 billion, a staggering figure by Olympic standards, rivaled by their neighbors in China.). Japan’s Olympic minister suggested publicly that Olympic athletes may be tested daily during the Games. According to media reports in Japan, Olympic organizers have secured around 300 hotel rooms for Olympians who test positive for coronavirus symptoms, at the cost of millions of dollars. All this after the Japanese government raised eyebrows by ever-so-conveniently lifting its state of emergency order just days before the Olympic Torch Relay commenced. Then, earlier this month, the government imposed a month-long “quasi-emergency” order on Tokyo, even as the torch relay continues to wend through the country.

“People in Japan knew that lifting of the state of emergency happened too soon and the sight of torch relay has upset many,” Satoko Itani, a professor at Kansai University, told The Nation. “To add insult to injury, many Japanese medical workers are still waiting for the vaccine. The vaccination of elderly populations has only just begun and likely won’t be completed before the start of the Olympics. Hospitals around Japan are overwhelmed by rapidly increasing numbers of COVID patients.” Itani concluded, “It is very difficult not to realize that the effort to control the Covid-19 infection in Japan has been severely compromised or sacrificed because of the Olympics. People also realize that there are seemingly endless resources available when it comes to hosting the Olympics, but very few to save people’s lives and livelihoods here in Japan.”

In a way, the population in Japan has swung around to the position of anti-Olympics activists in Tokyo and around the world: The Games should not go on. Natsuko Sasaki, who was born and raised in Japan, told us, “It is significant that so many Japanese people have learned how the unstoppable Olympic machine works.” Sasaki, who now lives in France, where she is a member of the anti-Olympics group NON aux JO 2024 à Paris, added that the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics have not yet appeared on the general public’s radar, owing to the predominance of coronavirus coverage in the French media, but that the ongoing debacle in Tokyo might change that.

What is certain is that only the most craven Olympic media booster will be calling these 2020 Olympics a beacon of hope. Far from it; they have become a monument to excess and waste in the context of a pandemic when resources are desperately needed. If the situation in Tokyo remains the same, or tragically worsens, there will be a rebellion against these Games and that rebellion will have a reverb effect in Paris and in Los Angeles, the sites of the next two Summer Games. Tokyo’s willingness for the Games to go on, even if it means worsening the pandemic, raises the stakes dramatically for Olympic boosters and demonstrators alike.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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