Future of Tokyo Olympics Uncertain
Prof Rajaram Panda

The Yoshihide Suga government in Japan is in a fix. The postponed Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin in six months from now on 23 July but in the wake of surging pandemic, there is increasing clamour both from the public and the opposition parties that the event either be further postponed or cancelled altogether. Prime Minister Suga is facing big dilemma and shall have to take a decision either way soon lest his popularity which is already plummeting shall further move south. For him, Japan’s prestige is at stake but he needs to have a larger perspective.

The postponement of the Games in 2020 was the first since the modern Olympics began in the 19th century and could again be the first if cancelled since World War II. For the record, in the history of Olympic Games, the Games have been scrapped five times, all because of World Wars. The Summer Games were cancelled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 and the Winter Games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944. Tokyo was to host the 1940 Games. It was initially postponed but as War raged, it was cancelled. In 1976, the Winter Games moved to Innsbruck, Austria, from Denver after people in Colorado protested spiralling costs. This was the first such thing to happen.

The reigning uncertainty with beleaguered Olympics caused by the public health crisis led to overnight absence of traditional build-up of expectation and joyous mood that would bring to any nation. Peoples are also concerned about the mounting costs in hosting the event, besides spread of the coronavirus further. The Olympic torch relay is scheduled to start on 25 March in Fukushima Prefecture and if the Suga government goes ahead with hosting the event, he shall face the peoples’ wrath as further restrictions and virus-quelling public health measures shall be imposed on the people.

In the meantime, a report in The Times that the Suga government has privately concluded the Games will have to be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a debate in Japan. The report cites an unnamed senior member of the ruling coalition as the source. The paper said that the government’s focus shall be now to secure the Games for Tokyo in the next available year, 2032.

Though the effect of the virus is relatively less compared with many advanced economies, the recent surge in cases, a third wave, spurred the government to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures. Recent opinion polls showed that as much as 80 per cent of people do not want the Games to be held this Summer over fear that influx of athletes will spread the virus further.1 The Times report said that “no one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it’s too difficult”. By cancelling the Games altogether, the government can save face and leave the door open for hosting the Games at a later date.

There are conflicting opinions on the future of the Games. Suga boasts that the event would “bring hope and courage to the world”. He dismissed that The Times report has no truth and that he is “determined” to host the Games.2 The International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach too is confident that the Games are on. Bach said “there is no plan B”.3 It may be recalled that the IOC decided to postpone the Games in March 2020 after Australia and Canada refused to send their teams to Tokyo as the pandemic worsened. If the Suga government goes ahead with hosting the Games and takes risks, it is most likely to be without spectators, thereby losing much of its lustre as well as presenting severe financial strain to the government as revenue from ticket sales and advertisement would have disappeared. Interestingly, while the opposition lawmakers call for the Games either to be postponed or cancelled, the Tokyo Medical Association wants the event to be held behind closed doors.

What gives Suga the confidence to go ahead with the Games despite public disapproval? The fact that Japan is scheduled to start its Covid-19 vaccination program by the end of February makes Suga confident of stemming the virus spread and controlling the situation. That is a huge risk. Over 300,000 persons are infected and over 5,000 have lost their lives already in Japan. In fact, the figure reached in about two weeks after hitting 4,000,4 indicating a surge. With Tokyo seeing another wave and a second round of emergency declaration, medical experts are questioning the viability of holding the Games when a vaccine has not been administered across the globe. The emergence of a new variant is another worry as interactions between athletes and local communities could precipitate the crisis. Moreover, combat sports like judo and wrestling would have physical contacts.

Giving vaccines to athletes on priority basis in Japan could result in public opposition too. Vaccinating athletes on priority over frontline workers and at-risk people could raise ethical dilemma not only in Japan but in other countries too. With a record number of centenarians in the world numbering over 80,000 and an aging society, the Suga government can ill afford to overlook their need too. Moreover, different vaccines to different peoples arriving from over 100 countries across the globe could provide different outcome. Quarantining athletes and supporting staff upon arrival and before participation could result in stress as was the case with Indian cricketers recently in just concluded India-Australia series in Australia.

As regards cost, without the Games being held and amid uncertainty, it has already become the most expensive Olympics ever. As of 22 December 2020, the cost of postponed Olympics increased by 22 per cent to 1.64 trillion yen or $15.8 billion.5 In case Suga goes ahead with the event despite many imponderables and makes a decision whether to allow crowds to the events by the end of March or not, he shall have to deal with 4.48 million tickets for the Olympics and 970,000 for the Paralympics that are sold as only 18 per cent of Japanese ticketholders have requested a refund. If the events are held without any spectator, Tokyo Olympic organizers would incur a loss of around 90 billion yen ($869 million) in ticket revenues. Government outlays would be required to cover the shortfall.6

The host city contract between Tokyo and the IOC does not address postponement. Cancellation of the Games would drastically affect the marketing plans, though sponsors retain their rights despite the postponement, including those whose agreements expired in 2020. There are many global sponsors and as well as many as 68 domestic ones. The amount involved is to the tune of $3.3 billion; almost triple the previous record for the Olympics. 7

The Games shall also lose some of its lustre as some of the athletes and medal hopefuls in Japan and other countries have tested positive for the coronavirus and may not be able to perform up to their full potential without adequate training and preparations.

As regards the financial cost, Japan’s budget committee expects to pass a 21.8 trillion yen third supplementary budget for the Games, while the Opposition is expected to attack the Suga administration as his approval ratings have plunged.

In the meantime, Suga seems to be determined to host the Games at all costs. After declaring a state of emergency in Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures early in January in an attempt to quell a record spike in Covid-19 infections, Japan’s Cabinet approved draft laws on 22 January to toughen coronavirus restrictions, a move that could threaten rule-breakers with fines and prison sentences for the first time since the outbreak began.8

Thus far, unlike strict lockdowns seen elsewhere in the world, Japanese law does not allow empowering authority to enforce regulations but only can urge people to stay at home. No fines could also be imposed on those (peoples or businesses) who/which ignore the request or violate the regulations. This could be Japan’s soft approach that balances infection control with economic impact. The Suga government now wants to change this by drafting a new law. The new law will allow authorities to punish and even imprison people for up to a year if they test positive but refuse hospitalisation.

If the new law is passed, the government will be empowered to penalise bars and restaurants that defy and continue evening service when instructed not to with fines of up to ¥500,000 ($4,800). The opposition is unlikely to support the draft bill and seek an amendment. In particular, it is likely to raise the issue of forced hospitalization on the ground that it will impinge on civil liberties. Private hospitals tend to refuse coronavirus patients and therefore the draft laws would empower local governments to name and shame medical facilities that flout requests to admit Covid-19 patients. The Asahi Shimbun in an editorial was critical that the law will have “profound consequences for the rights of individuals, which could have all sorts of repercussions for society”.9

The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) blames Suga for delaying emergency declaration and now having allowed the virus to spike, wants to host the Games. Yukio Edano, the leader of the CDPJ remarked that the situation would worsen if the Games are held with enormous cost to the nation. He urged Suga to rethink. Edano also opposed awarding prison terms to Covid-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalised. Suga rebutted Edano’s criticism by justifying that his decisions are based on experts’ opinions and therefore refused to retract the idea of introducing legal penalties.10 The blame game continues.

Similarly, Kazuo Shii, head of the Japanese Communist Party, observed that COVID-19 vaccinations would not spread to all nations in time for the Olympics. There could also be difficulties in dispatching large numbers of medical personnel for athletes and fans at the Games.11 Suga seems determined to host the Games. His opinion that vaccination would not be a prerequisite for hosting the Games would not have many takers, if 80 per cent of the people disapprove as was in the opinion poll, is an indication. This is a huge gamble that Suga is taking to put his political future at stake. If he goes ahead in hosting the Games and it turns out to be successful as was the case with the recently Border-Gavaskar Trophy cricket series in Australia, he would have won a Nobel in his political fortune. But if the Games ends with disasters in the form of further virus spread, casualty in loss of lives, further straining the country’s economy and many more side effects, Suga would have dug his political grave.

Vaccines or no vaccines, Suga would be best advised to pursue a safe option and refrain from taking any decision that could be detrimental to the interests of Japan, Japanese people, Japanese economy and the people of the world at large as the gathering would be of gigantic proportion. The risk factor ought to be weighed extremely carefully by the ruling coalition. If in the ultimate turn, the Games are finally postponed or even cancelled, Suga would have to redo his political strategy as elections for the Lower House are due to be held by the autumn of this year.

Making an objective assessment, it transpires that a decision whether to hold the Games, postpone further or cancel altogether must not be taken lightly and until there are convincing grounds that the coronavirus would not impact the events in an adverse way. Till the final decision is available, the world will be waiting with keenness to hear the outcome.

  1. Satoshi Sugiyama, “Diet in review: Suga defensive on virus response but insistent on Olympics”, The Japan Times, 22 January 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/01/22/national/politics-diplomacy/suga-diet-qa/; Japan denies possibility of canceling Olympics”, 17 January 2021, https://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/17/01/2021/Japan-denies-possibility-of-canceling-Olympics
  2. “Japan stands firm on Tokyo Olympics schedule, denies report of cancellation”, 22 January 2021, https://ww0w.gulf-times.com/story/683009/Japan-stands-firm-on-Tokyo-Olympics-schedule-denie
  3. “Tokyo Olympics 2020: Japan says 'no truth' in Games cancellation report; PM Yoshihide Suga 'determined' to host”, 22 January, 2021, https://in.news.yahoo.com/tokyo-olympics-2020-japan-says-070240332.html
  4. “COVID-19 deaths across Japan hit 5,000, up 1,000 in just two weeks”, Asahi Shimbun, 23 January 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14130757
  5. “Uncertainty reigns with beleaguered Olympics six months away”, The Japan Times, 22 January 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2021/01/22/olympics/tokyo-olympics-uncertainty/S
  6. “Opposition parties urge Suga to call off Olympic Games” The Asahi Shimbun, 22 January 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14127747
  7. Jon Herskovitz, “Why the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Still Aren’t a Sure Thing”, 15 January 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-15/why-the-tokyo-2020-olympics-still-aren-t-a-sure-thing-quicktake
  8. “Japan Cabinet approves Bill for tougher COVID-19 measures”, 22 January 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/japan-cabinet-approves-bill-for-tougher-covid-19-measures-14018776?cid=emarsys-cna_CNA+Evening+Brief+2021-01-22+19%3A00%3A00_newsletter_2201
  9. “Bill to amend COVID-19 laws riddled with too many questions”, The Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 23 January 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14130369
  10. Satoshi Sugiyama, n.1. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/01/22/national/politics-diplomacy/suga-diet-qa/
  11. Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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