Why Tokyo thinks the 2020 Olympics show must go on - even as Covid-19 booms

A woman wearing the yukata, or casual summer kimono, walks past Olympic rings displayed at Nihonbashi district in Tokyo, Japan, Aug 5, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

They insist the 2020 Tokyo Olympics must take place, pandemic or no pandemic, but the ultimate decision may be out of their hands - as was the case in March last year when reluctant organisers were forced to delay the Games amid a rapidly growing Covid-19 pandemic.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, local organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have all doubled and tripled down on the official line that the Games will go ahead on July 23 in Tokyo.

The financial and political costs of cancelling the Games are simply too great even as Japan extends a state of emergency in Tokyo and greater Osaka and local opinion polls weigh towards postponing or cancelling the Games amid a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Suga said he has "never put the Olympics first" and that the International Olympic Committee, not he and his government, has the final say on whether the Games, already delayed from last year because of the pandemic, will go ahead.

There is probably more at stake than at any other Olympics, not least the cost. These are the most expensive Olympics in history, according to an Oxford University study last year, and they are only becoming more costly.

Official figures took the cost past US$15 billion (S$20 billion) last December but Japan's national audit has put the true figure at around US$26 billion and the costs are still rising because of the necessary Covid-19 measures.

It’s a vast difference from the initial projected cost of US$7.5 billion when the Games were awarded in 2013 – and with only US$6.7 billion secured from private funding, most of the money is coming from public funds.

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The Japanese public has made its opinion clear. The latest poll, released by the Yomiuri daily, showed that 59 per cent wanted the Games cancelled.

A mere 39 per cent of those surveyed from May 7-9 wanted the Olympics to go ahead as planned on July 23, while a further postponement - ruled out by the IOC as a possibility - was not offered as an option.

And while IOC spokesman Mark Adams said on Wednesday that public opinion would not sway organisers nor their partners, the fate of the Olympics may ultimately be in the hands of the most important of all stakeholders - the athletes and the countries they represent.

"Suga is coming under greater pressure from the opposition parties and the governors of Japan's 47 prefectures, who may demand that a state of emergency be extended to cover the whole country," said Professor Craig Mark, of the Faculty of International Studies at the Kyoritsu Women's University in Tokyo.

"The Japanese public is also becoming more vocal, in street protests as well as on social media, in demanding the Games be postponed or cancelled. Medical authorities, including the stressed and overworked medical staff, particularly nurses, are also demanding relief," he said. "Whether other countries decide to send their teams to Tokyo or not could be the deciding factor for the Olympics ultimately going ahead."

Early in 2020, after the pandemic had spread to almost every country in the world, it was not the IOC nor the organisers who felt the need to delay the Games.

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It was only when Australia and Canada said they would not be sending teams to Tokyo that shell-shocked organisers moved to avoid further humiliation and announced a postponement.

There has been an increase in dissenting voices, with protesters gathering outside the National Stadium for a recent athletics test event. Their message was clear with placards bearing "Corona Olympics of the Dead" and "IOC and NBC Kill People" alongside chants of "Stop the Olympics!"

At the same time, an online petition calling for the Games to be cancelled has gained traction.

The change.org petition, titled "Cancel the Tokyo Olympics to save lives" received more than 350,000 signatures on Monday, a week after being published on May 7.

Petition organiser Kenji Utsunomiya, a lawyer who has unsuccessfully run for Tokyo governor several times, claimed that the Games cannot go ahead safely and the country's finances are stretched.

"Government policies are being set with the Olympics in mind, and measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic are being neglected," Utsunomiya said. "Hospitals are stretched thin and some people are dying at home."

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Despite this dystopian backdrop, the question is no longer whether the Games should go ahead, as both the IOC and Tokyo Organising Committee have made it clear that they are.

"The question is not whether, the question is how these Olympic Games will take place," IOC chief Thomas Bach said in March.

This week, Bach has had to postpone his trip to Japan as the ongoing state of emergency, which was extended from May 11 to the end of the month, prevented him from travelling to join the torch relay.

The most pertinent question now is why are they hell-bent on holding the Games?

The athletes want them to go ahead, according to former Olympian and London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe.

"The vast majority of athletes I speak to wanting to get into the Games are understanding that it will not be the type of Games they've experienced before," he said.

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But some are wavering. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is expected to be the face of the Games and a serious gold medal hope for the hosts, is the most high-profile voice among them.

"Of course, I would say I want the Olympics to happen, because I'm an athlete and that's sort of what I've been waiting for my entire life," Osaka said at the recent Madrid Open.

"But I think that there's so much important stuff going on, and especially the past year," Osaka said. "I think a lot of unexpected things have happened and if it's putting people at risk, and if it's making people very uncomfortable, then it definitely should be a discussion, which I think it is as of right now."

Fellow Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori also expressed his doubts, especially over the athletes' village.

"The Suga government is very determined that the Olympics go ahead, since it has invested a huge amount of political capital, as well as financial investment in the Games," said Professor Craig Mark.

"While it is uncertain just how financially liable the Japanese national government and Tokyo municipal government will be if the Games are cancelled, it would mean that possibly US$26 billion would have been spent for nothing.

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"He is hoping that his government will receive a political boost for successfully hosting the Games, despite the pandemic. Suga may decide to then to hold the election for the Lower House of the Diet possibly in August, before he is due to face a leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September."

Mark agrees that Suga has much to lose. Only an overwhelmingly successful Games will help the prime minister emerge as a hero. An ordinary Games may see voters who opposed the Olympics punishing him for pressing ahead and even those who are on the fence may still simmer at perceptions that he neglected the plight of Japanese people.

A worst-case scenario for Suga is if the Olympics turn into a "superspreader" event with the British Medical Journal questioning whether they could be "safe and secure".

Test events at the already completed venues - of which there are 40 - have ramped up in recent weeks, with no Covid-19 positives recorded at any of them, according to organisers.

Epidemiologists around the world are still expressing their doubts with 10 weeks to go. Australia's Council for State and Territorial Epidemiologists member Dr Jeffrey Engel warned that the Olympics remain in danger, in an interview with Around The Rings radio.

Meanwhile, New Zealand epidemiologist Michael Baker called on the Kiwi government and national Olympic committee to take a stand and pull out.

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"Suga is certainly taking a huge gamble, given the widespread public opposition to the Games going ahead this summer," Mark said. "Even if the Olympics go ahead relatively smoothly, which Japanese and international medical experts increasingly doubt, the Japanese electorate are likely to resent the Suga government for seeming to prioritise the Games ahead of public health, despite Suga's protestations otherwise."

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike also has political factors at play. Although she is not up for re-election, her party, Tokyo Residents First - the largest bloc in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly, may fall apart if voters decide to punish her for insisting on staging the Games.

"For these political reasons, it does seem the Olympics will go ahead, even if there are no spectators," Mark said. "The Suga government is trying to ramp up the rate of vaccinations, but at the moment it is a desperate race to overtake the rapid spread of the more contagious variants of Covid-19, which is seeing Japan endure a fourth wave of the coronavirus."

The World Health Organisation expressed its hope for the Games, acknowledging that the decisions needed to ensure the safest possible format can only be made at the last minute.

Despite the full-steam ahead message, even some within the Japanese government have expressed concern.

"There would be no meaning to having the Olympics" if they caused a spike in infections, said the general secretary of Japan's ruling LDP political party, Toshihiro Nikai, in April. Nikai, who is Suga's number two in the LDP, later tried to backtrack as other suits doubled down on the Games going ahead - in some form.

Japan has recorded almost 650,000 coronavirus cases and is approaching 11,000 deaths. On May 8, the country reported 7,200 infections - the highest since January.

At the 100-day countdown, the Japanese vaccination rate was close to 1 per cent - 1.1 million of their 126 million populace. It has now increased to over 2 per cent but millions of vaccines have gone unused so far.

The pandemic has driven the decisions behind the Tokyo 2020 "playbooks" for those who can attend, and a ban on foreign spectators and volunteers. Athletes are also limited to attending the Olympic Village during a narrow window either side of their events.

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Nonetheless, some 11,000 Olympic and 4,350 Paralympic athletes are expected in Tokyo from more than 200 countries. That is not to mention the tens of thousands of officials, media members and broadcasters.

There may be more measures to come in the third and final playbooks, scheduled to be released in June, warned an IOC official.

"If it takes more restrictive measures than now, then it shall be," Christophe Dubi, the IOC's executive director for the Olympic Games, said in April at the launch of the second playbook.

The IOC gets almost three-quarters of its income from broadcast rights and those rights are sold well in advance. No Games means that they owe the likes of US broadcast giant NBC money that they simply don't have, especially with cash flow stalled during the pandemic.

Take Hong Kong as a much smaller example, where the government has paid an undisclosed fee for the broadcast rights to Japanese firm Dentsu.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the government had paid less than the HK$160 million (S$27 million) that TVB paid for the Rio Olympics in 2016, and the HK$120 million that Cable TV spent on the 2012 London Olympics. She also said: "In the event the Olympic Games are cancelled, the broadcast fee will be refunded."

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If that is true for every single rights market, then someone is on the hook for billions - back in 2015 the IOC were projecting in the region of US$4.5 billion from broadcasting rights for the Pyeongchang 2018 to Tokyo 2020 Olympic cycle.

The decision on domestic spectators will only be made in June but is notable that of those polled by Yomiuri that said the Games should go ahead, 23 per cent said that the Games should be held behind closed doors.

Foreign spectators have already been banned, with that hitting the pockets of both the Games organisers - who had expected to raise US$800 million in ticket sales - and also Japan's hotel and tourism industries.

Even those who can visit Japan are unlikely to help the industry. The playbooks have banned visits to bars, restaurants and tourist attractions. Public transport use is limited. It truly will be an Olympics like no other and, if it goes ahead without fans, provides proof that television is king.

Deadly global pandemic and unprecedented one-year postponement aside, the Games have ridden controversy and misfortune throughout.

The organising committee president resigned over sexist comments, and the director of the opening ceremony followed for similar misogyny, while Abe, who brought the Games to Japan, had to retire because of ill health.

Despite all of it, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee will continue to make it clear that the show will go on.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.