The Reporter English Edition


Hold or Postpone the Tokyo Olympics? The COVID-19 Pandemic Hobbles Japan





At a press conference on March 14, 2020, then Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (安倍晉三) gave the following response to a reporter’s question about whether the Tokyo Olympics will be held as scheduled:

“International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has expressed his full support for Japan to successfully hold the Olympic Games on July 24  [2020] as scheduled. We know that the IOC and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working in close cooperation, and are keeping an eye on new developments. With this in mind, there will be no change to our planning, and we will maintain close cooperation with all relevant bodies, including the IOC. In short, we must endeavor to overcome the pandemic, and expect to hold a successful Olympic Games as planned.”

After hearing this, I didn’t think the Olympics could be held in the summer of 2020. It's a little hard to explain, but I could only say that it's the sixth sense of being a political journalist. From time to time, Abe added, “if it is a decision made by the IOC or the WHO, we can only follow orders.” These words struck me as subtle. My article was scheduled to publish in mid-March 2020, a time when the Japanese government had not yet officially announced its final decision on the Games’ rescheduling.  My initial guess was that in late March to early April, the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed.

Before this final decision was announced, the IOC once said that it would issue a final decision on whether to hold the Games by the end of May 2020. In fact, the deadline it set was too late. If we take into account the athletes’ practice, staff arrangement, transportation means, and more, a decision must be reached three months before the opening ceremony on July 24. Otherwise, it could cause all sorts of problems. Such was the consensus of the international sports community. The sooner there's an answer about the Games’ postponement, the better.

In my view, since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the virus had since spread to Europe and North America, the possibility of holding the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 had drastically shunk. What's more, the Games started in ancient Greece and has been a Euro-American centric sports event.  The COVID-19 had posed great challenges to European and American societies, making it difficult to hold the Games in the summer of 2020. As a result, the Japanese government's plan to organize the Games while its nation was still struggling with the pandemic  was a mere fantasy.

With So Much Invested, Japan Cannot Cancel the Games

In 2020, the most likely scenario for the Tokyo Olympics was a one or two year postponement.   For Japan, it was unacceptable that the Games should be cancelled. The construction and publicity costs for the venues are said to be as high as 1 trillion yen. In addition, the US-based National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had acquired the rights to broadcast the Games from the IOC and sold them to the international media. Some 70 percent of the IOC's budget comes from broadcasting rights, half of which is said to come from NBC. NBC would not accept the cancellation of the Games, and the IOC could not ignore what NBC, the sponsor, said. With so many major sporting events in the United States in the spring and fall, it is impossible for NBC to broadcast the Tokyo Olympics outside of summer time. The only solution to this dilemma was postponement. On closer inspection, we could observe some tell-tale signs. Koike Yuriko (小池百合子), the governor of Tokyo where the Games would be hosted, said that she would "absolutely not accept the cancellation" of the Games, but said nothing about the “postponement.” Then US President Donald Trump had directly proposed a “one-year postponement.” I suspected that President Trump might have been asked to do so by then Japanese Prime Minister Abe. The IOC said publicly that it would follow the judgment of the WHO. This statement appeared to be illogical. The host organization of the Olympic Games is obviously the IOC. Even if it took the WHO’s recommendation as a reference, the IOC retained the rights to make the final decision.  Personally, I suspected that the WHO, the IOC, the U.S. TV stations, the Japanese government, and Donald Trump might have already reached a consensus on the “postponement” of the Games under the table.

No One Dares Fire the First Shot

The Japanese government itself wanted to avoid the cancellation of the Games due to COVID-19, since this would become the legacy of the Abe administration. It would also affect the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election result in fall 2020, potentially jeopardizing Abe’s hopes of a third term in office. The cancellation of the Games might also intensify anti-Abe sentiments, leading to the dissolution of the general election, or even the downfall of the LDP. On the other hand, the IOC itself didn’t want to become a target, so it’s best to have the WHO make a decision. To persuade the public, the WHO only needed to adopt a scientific perspective and argue that large gatherings of people pouring in from around the world for an event like the Tokyo Olympics should be avoided. The Japanese people were also well aware that under such circumstances, it was difficult to successfully organize a large-scale international event like the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic. Even with audience participation, the Games would still be affected. Spectators from Europe and the United States would cancel their visits one after another. Even the athletes could not rest assured of full practice. All things considered, the Games could not be held as scheduled.

Before the Japanese government announced the postponement of the Games to 2021, its people were all praying for an end to such indeterminacy.  At that time, opinion polls showed that a majority of the Japanese public did not think the Tokyo Olympics could be held as scheduled. They all acknowledged the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to prioritize disease prevention over the Games.

Could the “56 Year Wait” End the “20 Lost Years”?

But until the COVID-19 pandemic spread across Japan, the nation was still dreaming about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo Olympic dream dates back to 2013. Tokyo originally ranked the third among the cities bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games. In the final judging stage, rival cities Istanbul and Madrid dropped off the competition for domestic reasons. Tokyo was then elected the host city. Having been in office since 2012, then Prime minister Abe Shinzo had seen a popularity boost thanks to the Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics became one of the key factors for the Abe administration to stay in power.  The last Tokyo Olympics was held in 1964. I was born in 1968. In the 70s, I remember hearing people recall the great success of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. So, in 2013, when Tokyo was confirmed as the host city of the 2020 Olympic Games, I was full of expectations. I was glad to see the glamorous return of the Tokyo Olympic Games in my lifetime.

I also went online to apply for the Games tickets, which cost around 1 million yen. Judo, baseball, tennis, football, gymnastics, badminton, the opening and closing ceremonies--I put whatever interests me on the checkout list. To be honest, if I managed to get all the tickets, I would have been broke. In the end, I managed to get the tickets for only two events--cycling and gymnastics. Even so, my friends considered me very lucky. The Japanese people were projecting two dreams onto the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For one, the Games symbolizes the nation’s revival from the March 11 Earthquake (東日本大震災) in 2011. For another, the Games also brings about the hope for an economic recovery from the “lost 20 years”, a prolonged economic stagnation that began around 1990. So, when Tokyo was confirmed as the host city of the 2020 Olympic Games, many Japanese saw it as a ray of light out of the dark tunnel of the lost 20 years.

Chasing After Three Rabbits but Getting None

It was ironic that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was besmirched by the Japanese government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January and February 2020, with the exception of China’s Hubei and Zhejiang provinces, Japan did not impose entry restrictions on Chinese tourists. This decision was made based on such considerations: “The Tokyo Olympic would be a success”, "foreign tourists would be attracted to Japan" and “Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan would be realized.” Japan had also not banned entry from Guangdong province, which was considered a high-risk zone by Taiwan and the US. Until March 9, 2020, when the Japanese government finally imposed a two-week quarantine and lifted visa-free travel for visitors from China and South Korea, a growing number of confirmed cases was spreading across the country. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “chasing after two rabbits but getting none,” meaning that one cannot divert attention on two things at the same time. Japan was chasing after three rabbits in 2020: “the Tokyo Olympics”, “a tourism boom,” and “Xi Jinping's visit to Japan.” No wonder nothing worked out.  The Abe administration blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and evaded its own responsibilities. However, it was undeniable that public trust in Abe Shinzo was greatly reduced. His lack of leadership, slow response, and lack of credibility-- none of which can be compared with the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration in Taiwan. This sharp difference between Abe and Tsai had aroused a lot of discussion in Japan. In Japan, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Vice-president Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), Health and Welfare minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), and Digital Minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳) were seen on television as major contributors to the island’s pandemic prevention success. The Taiwanese government had never been so lauded by the Japanese media. This reflected a growing frustration toward the Japanese government. What was remarkable is that during his speech at winning the right to host the Olympics Games, Abe claimed that the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “under control.”  Even when the Japanese people disagreed with him, they were still overjoyed by the Olympic bid. They chose to turn a blind eye to the truth.  Regarding the current COVID-19 outbreak, the Japanese government must have wanted to claim again that everything is “under control.” But things had backfired, and COVID-19 spread fast not only in Japan but all over the world. The situation was closer to “uncontrollable.” Under such circumstances, organizing an international event where lots of athletes, staff, and media personnel gather should not be allowed. When writing this piece in March 2020, I was sincerely hoping that the Tokyo Olympics could be postponed. The fear of contracting COVID-19 while singing the national anthem was very underwhelming. While I felt sorry for the athletes who have been preparing for the Games, health and safety is more important than anything else. I am hoping that we can see an end to the pandemic as soon as possible.

(To read the Chinese version of this article, please click: 野島剛/東京奧運舉行或延期?因疫情陷入困局的日本)




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