Olympics Are Coming

Ichiro Suzuki

At long last, Olympics are returning to Tokyo after 57 years, a year behind the original schedule. It has been speculated that the Games be cancelled amid stubborn persistence of the coronavirus. There is no festive mood in the city that usually precedes a big global event. Tokyo has spent a large part of 2021 under a state of emergency. While the latest round of emergency was lifted on June 20, the Delta variant is capable of spreading fast as soon as restrictions on citizens’ life are loosened. The pandemic has divided the public sharply on whether the 32nd Summer Games be held or not, and the voice against the Games is louder the other. If not cursed, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has had little blessings from God. Too many things have gone awry since the Tokyo was chosen in 2013 as the site of the 32nd Games. To begin with, the main stadium’s original design was forced to be scrapped as soaring construction cost came under a fierce attack by the media. This forced scrapping of British architect Zaha Hadid’s original design. Delay caused by redesigning it all over again made the new national stadium not to be ready for the Rugby World Cup in the autumn of 2019. (In fact, a new stadium was planned originally for the RWC, well before Tokyo was awarded Olympics.) Then, a Belgian designer made a Facebook post claiming that the official emblem of the Tokyo Games distinctly resembled one of his works. This suspected plagiarism became a whirlwind in the media and the internet space, forcing a Japanese designer, who won in an open competition, to withdraw. The Tokyo Olympics Organization Committee had to select a new emblem from scratch. In January 2020, six months to the original opening day of the 32nd Games, a novel coronavirus hit Wuhan, China and quickly spread to the rest of the world. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved relatively quickly to postpone the games for a year though no one was sure a year was enough to contain the virus or not. As it turned out, through a variety of mutations COVID-19 has proved to be a great deal more persistent than was originally thought, making the world speculate whether the Games are really going to take place. If this is not enough, organization committee chairman, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, was forced to resign earlier this year, for his allegedly sexist remarks in one of his speeches. Olympics are gong to take place at last though the Games shouldn’t be held from medical perspectives. The Tokyo Games are far from what the world is familiar with as normal. No foreign tourists are allowed, though guests of sponsors and journalists are still coming. Stadiums and arenas are gong to operate at much reduced capacity. With COVID-19 continuing to persist, athletes are required to be stuck in the bubble, which is athletes’ village. There will be no public viewings that usually draw a large number of people. Restaurants and bars are told to close early, at 8pm. Authorities may enforce another state of emergency in the middle of the Olympics if the number of infections rises in Tokyo. Then there will be no spectators at the stadium though sponsors’ guests would still sit there. In fact, the public health situation in Tokyo is much worse today than in last summer, with daily infections more than three times the numbers 12 months ago. Was the Japanese government incompetent? Probably no though they hardly looked terribly competent. At least the government has managed to keep infections from rising to far higher levels that were witnessed outside Asia. Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Japanese government has been forced to work under limited authority, with no legal ability to restrict citizens’ life, without being able to aggressively trace their footsteps on smartphones’ data, or to enforce fines. Last spring, the government hastily put together an emergency law that raises the government’s authority in the event of an emergency. Nonetheless, what the new law gives the government still falls far short of this type of law in other counties. ‘Lock-down’ cannot be enforced on citizens. All they could do was to ask them to stay home. In this limited capacity, they probably have done better than widely believed. Maybe the biggest mistake the government made on the pandemic was not aggressively bidding up for vaccines early, so that vaccination progresses not far behind the U.S. or the U.K., to be in time for the Olympics. Cancellation of the Olympics is probably a great deal easier said than done. Tokyo already did it once infamously, on the 12th Games in 1940, as the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion into China led to intensified battles against Chinese nationalists and communists. At that time, a war was expanding in Europe as well, and WWII led to cancellation of the 1944 Games in London though this was not the U.K.’s fault. Berlin canceled the 1916 Olympics amid the raging Great War in Europe. Tokyo probably does not wish to be the only city to cancel the game for the second time, especially when this pandemic is a fault of someone else. Worse, six months after Tokyo, Beijing hosts Winter Olympics. The Chinese Communist Party is going to do it definitely. The CCP has no hesitation to intervene in citizens’ life in order to contain the virus. The party has been doing it already anyway and has been successful. Cancellation of Tokyo Olympics could be a congratulatory gift to the CCP’s centenary celebration. It would make not only Japan but also Western democracy look weak at a time when the CCP believes democracy is in decline. This is could be a rationale behind G7’s firm support for the Tokyo Games at its recent Summit in Cornwall, U.K. For Japan, cancellation is a denial of a theme that Tokyo campaigned on when bidding for the site of the 2020 Games. That was “Japan is back” after a devastating earthquake in 2011 and two decades of economic malaise since the burst of the bubble. The ruling class of the Liberal Democratic Party probably has little interest in going back to inward looking mode that might come with cancellation of a mega global event. Having Olympics could come with a cost of some lives and possible strains on the medical infrastructure. They might have concluded that the country's long-term strategy supersedes short-term costs though they are very visible. Soon after the Paralympics are over in mid-September, most of those who want it would be inoculated, as the pace of vaccination is picking up lately. In the LDP’s minds, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccination would keep COVID-19 from exploding, even with Olympics, they are hoping. Tokyo Games are coming at a time when a variety of major international sports events are already taking place after cancellation or postponement last summer. There are two major soccer tournaments going on in Europe and Latin America. (Copa America seats no spectators in the world’s hardest-hit region.) Tour de France and Wimbledon are also in progress. The All England Lawn & Tennis Club plans to welcome capacity crowds at its Centre Court for finals matches. With all these, cancellation of Tokyo Olympics could make Japan an object of scorn for years to come, on top of creating a propaganda coup for the CCP. Lowered international standing could pose unbearable long-term costs to the country, as opposed to short-term and tactical considerations that cancellation highlights. Both of these factors are important and they come with prices.


About the author: Mr. Suzuk is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.