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10 May 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:45am

Questions are mounting over the Tokyo Olympics

In a world still beset by Covid-19, what use is an event billed as a symbol of recovery?

By Jeremy Cliffe

This week was meant to bring the end of Japan’s state of emergency. Imposed on four of the country’s most populous prefectures (including Tokyo) on 25 April, as Covid-19 infection rates rose, the status was originally due to expire tomorrow, 11 May. But not only has Yoshihide Suga, the country’s prime minister, instead extended it to 31 May, but the restrictions will be expanded to take in two more prefectures.

Japan’s infection rate has risen steadily since early March and last Friday the country saw more deaths (148) than at any day since the start of the pandemic, as well as the largest number of patients in a severe condition (1,131). Overall daily cases are close to the peaks they reached in January, Japan’s most severe surge to date.

All the while, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are drawing closer. The games, postponed from last summer, are due to start on 23 July. The torch relay has been running for over a month already. And yet as the opening ceremony looms, questions are mounting about the wisdom of going ahead.

It has long been clear that, even if they do proceed, the Tokyo Olympics will be unlike any other. In March it was decreed that no foreign spectators will be admitted to the country. Rules on venue capacity for domestic spectators are due to be announced next month, but authorities have already deemed full stadiums “very difficult”. Athletes will be tested daily and urged not to mix or to use public transport. Yesterday saw a test event in an empty National Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies are due to be held, at which athletes had their temperatures checked on arrival and wore masks when not competing.

The central question, though, is whether these interventions are enough. The games are the world’s biggest sporting event and over 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from all over the world are expected. That makes them much larger and more global than other sporting events (like the Australian Open and the Super Bowl in the US) that have gone ahead despite Covid-19 in recent months. Athletes will not be required to quarantine on arrival in Japan. It is unclear whether all athletes, particularly those from poorer countries, will have been vaccinated by the time they participate.

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The risks from crowds of Japan-based spectators too are clear, as the torch relay itself has shown: at last eight people involved have so far caught Covid-19, the world’s oldest person will no longer carry the torch when it passes through Fukuoka tomorrow and in some places the relay is being rerouted away from public roads. Very few Japanese people have been vaccinated  only 2.6 per cent of the population has received a first dose, compared with 27.9 per cent in the EU, 45.5 per cent in the US and 52.1 per cent in the UK – and even the government’s boosterish claims about accelerating the programme only envisages jabbing all old people by the end of July.

[See also: Crisis is engulfing the postpoined Tokyo 2020 Games – but does the world still need the Olympics?]

Writing in the British Medical Journal last month, Kazuki Shimizu of the London School of Economics and his colleagues said that Japan had shown “poor performance” in containing the virus and argued that, “plans to hold the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency”. Two polls published in recent days, by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and TBS News, respectively found 59 per cent and 65 per cent of Japanese respondents saying the games should not go ahead. Those numbers also reflect widespread dissatisfaction with Suga, whose cabinet’s approval ratings have fallen to their lowest level since he took over following the resignation of Shinzo Abe last September and whose chances of leading the governing Liberal Democratic Party into the election due this autumn are deteriorating.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has ruled out another postponement, not least as the next Winter Olympics – in Beijing next February  are now on the horizon too. But its own president Thomas Bach today cancelled a trip to Japan scheduled for next week over the Covid-19 surge.

Asked in a parliamentary committee meeting earlier today whether the games would still go ahead, Suga said “I’ve never put Olympics first […] My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population.” The IOC depends heavily on the sales of broadcasting rights for its income and frets about the growing sense that hosting Olympics can end up being a poisoned chalice. Furthermore, Japan’s government has sunk huge sums into the costs – which may ultimately run to more than four times the original budget of around $7bn – and believes national pride is at stake. The games were originally conceived as a symbol of the country’s recovery from the 2011 nuclear disaster (the torch relay began in Fukushima) and over the past year have been restyled as the world’s post-pandemic comeback party. 

And yet what use is that symbolism now? It has become increasingly evident that most of the world will not be re-emerging from the pandemic by this summer. Some rich countries, it is true, have proceeded a long way with their vaccination programmes. Yet even they are reopening only tentatively, and maintaining cautious border restrictions. Others, like Japan, are stumbling. And in the poor world – as the as yet unbroken surge of cases in India shows  – any suggestion that the post-pandemic era is near is preposterous, if not actively insulting to the hundreds of millions in ongoing suffering. The risk is that even if the Tokyo Olympics go ahead and somehow avoid being a super-spreader event, they will serve only to symbolise the dashed, over-optimistic hopes of the recent past.

[See also: India’s nightmare shows Covid is becoming a primarily Global South pandemic]

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