The Games' organisers say they have a responsibility to hold the event and "build a legacy" for society. But money, national pride and political obduracy are also important drivers.
From the moment that Japan pitched to host the 2020 Olympic Games, its organisers have framed it as a symbol of recovery: from a decades-long economic slump, from a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster and, after a year's postponement, from a crippling pandemic.
Now, as the organisers press ahead with plans to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, the event itself threatens to become a trial from which Japan may take years to recover.
A series of health, economic and political challenges have besieged the Games. Even as the organisers decided last week to bar international spectators, epidemiologists warn that the Olympics could become a superspreader event. Thousands of athletes and other participants will descend on Tokyo from more than 200 countries while much of the Japanese public remains unvaccinated.
The financial hazards are also significant — the Olympic budget has swollen to a record US$15.4 billion ($22 billion), increasing nearly US$3 billion ($4.3 billion) in the past year alone and adding to longstanding doubts about whether Olympic Games pay off for host nations. And the Tokyo organising committee has been swamped by leadership chaos, with both the president and creative director resigning over the past month after making sexist remarks.
Through it all, the fundamentally undemocratic nature of Olympic decision-making has grown only more glaring. With the Olympic torch relay set to begin Thursday and the opening ceremony scheduled for July 23, Japan's government is defying the wishes of much of the public. In polls, close to 80 per cent say the Games should be postponed again or cancelled outright.
"I don't know any reason for why you would go out to watch these Olympic Games," said Hyoung Min Yoo, 29, who works in finance in Tokyo. He had secured coveted tickets to swimming and track and field finals but now has no interest in getting anywhere near the Olympic Stadium or aquatics centre. "I wish they could postpone the Olympics to the next next time," he said.
In the telling of the Olympic organisers, staging the Games this summer is something close to a moral imperative. The president of the Tokyo organising committee, Seiko Hashimoto, recently cited the "significant challenges" facing the world and the responsibility of the Olympics "to build a legacy for the future society."
But money, national pride and political obduracy are also at play.
The International Olympic Committee, which is sustained largely by selling broadcasting rights, stands to lose perhaps even more than Japan if the event is cancelled. Already, the IOC has struggled to entice bidders for future Olympic Games as cities have decided to avoid the hassle and cost.
In an effort to give itself breathing space, the IOC broke with tradition in 2017 by simultaneously announcing the hosts of the next two Summer Olympics — Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles four years later. This month it picked Brisbane, Australia, as its favoured candidate for the 2032 event.
Inside Japan, historical currents are also important drivers. The wartime cancellation of one Tokyo Olympics, in 1940, and the triumphant staging of another a quarter century later are potent symbols of first regret and then rebirth. The seemingly unstoppable push toward the Olympics this time also reflects an often rigid Japanese bureaucracy, with some even drawing parallels to World War II, when the Japanese public did not want the conflict but no leader dared halt it.
Then there is the matter of China. The Beijing Winter Olympics are less than a year away, and Tokyo wants bragging rights for hosting the first post-pandemic Games. If the Olympics fell through in Japan but were staged in China, that could give the Beijing government more fuel to assert that its authoritarian system is superior.
Whatever the outcome of the Games this summer, they could have profound ramifications for the entire Olympic movement, which has relied for decades upon an idealised promise of inspiration and civic pride to support enormous expenditures and increasingly onerous demands on host cities.
"When they say 'the five rings,' or if they show up with an Olympic symbol, they think they can command or demand anything," said Satoko Itani, an associate professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Kansai University. "But people are increasingly saying 'no.'"
"This could be a turning point" for organisers, Itani added. "Unfortunately, I don't think they have realised it."
The headaches for the Tokyo Summer Games long predated the pandemic. Two years after winning the bid, the government abandoned a sleek stadium design by a famous architect, Zaha Hadid, because the cost had ballooned to more than US$2 billion. After work on a cheaper stadium design got underway, a construction supervisor died by suicide after overwork.
The organisers scrapped their first logo after plagiarism accusations. The president of Japan's Olympic Committee was indicted on corruption charges related to the bidding process. Out of fears of extreme heat in Tokyo, the IOC moved the marathon to Sapporo, on Japan's northern island, 800km from the Olympic Stadium.
Taro Aso, the country's finance minister, has described the Tokyo Olympics as "cursed."
For Japan, the prospect of recouping its costs has grown only more distant, after the Tokyo organising committee said Saturday that it would not allow foreign spectators. Without these visitors, there is now little upside for hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions.
The organisers say that their focus is primarily on safety, and that they have earmarked US$900 million in spending on measures to combat the virus. They have watched in recent weeks as other major sporting events — the Australian Open, the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments — have gone ahead. For the Games, some countries are pushing Olympians to the front of the vaccination line, and the IOC has agreed to supply Chinese vaccines for those who need one.
The organisers say vaccination will not be mandatory, however, and many athletes, delegates and others will be coming from places where vaccines are unlikely to be fully available. Japan itself will not start vaccinations for those over 65 until next month, and there has been no indication that athletes will be prioritised.
Infections and deaths in Japan have never spiralled to the levels seen in the United States or Europe, but the country is still recording more than 1,000 new infections each day and dozens of deaths. The Tokyo region was under a state of emergency until Sunday, and the country's borders remain closed to most overseas visitors.
With more contagious and perhaps deadlier variants circulating around the globe, epidemiologists warn that the Tokyo Olympics have the potential to turbocharge the virus' spread.
Controlling the pathogen will be "almost close to mission impossible," said Dr. Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University Hospital. "Cancelling the Olympic Games would be much easier."
Rules proposed for the Olympic bubble depend largely on voluntary measures that have characterised Japan's overall approach to the virus. While organisers promise regular testing during the Games, until recently Japan has been far more restrictive in offering coronavirus tests than many other countries.
Many athletes are young and likely to want to socialise once they finish competition. And more than 500 communities have agreed to host athletes for pre-competition training, another potential route for infections to spread.
Barbara G. Holthus, deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo and one of more than 110,000 Olympic volunteers, said training sessions had offered paltry measures to protect unvaccinated participants from infection. Volunteers are encouraged to wash their hands vigorously and remind visitors to wear masks, she said.
Nobuo Sato, 63, who owns a vegetable shop in Tokyo, said he feared that if the Olympics resulted in another coronavirus wave, it would further damage his business, which has suffered over the past year as orders from restaurants have declined sharply.
"I just don't think they should risk the coronavirus spreading in any sense," he said. "That won't lead to things getting better. The faster the health situation gets better, the faster restaurants can reopen and the faster I can return to business as usual."
Japan's efforts to portray the Games as a symbol of triumph over the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where the torch relay starts on Thursday, have also run into resistance. The nuclear cleanup there is far from complete.
"To use the word recovery — I am really opposed to it," said Ayumi Iida, 36, a public relations official at a nonprofit in Onahama, about 65km south of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, where three reactors melted down a decade ago. "I am embarrassed to show the world this situation."
Motokuni Takaoka, chief executive of Airweave, a company that has designed and produced 18,000 custom mattresses for the athletes' village and is an Olympic sponsor, said that the Tokyo Games should proceed despite the challenges, because cancelling the event would mean losing to China.
But if the Games do not go on, he said he did not regret the US$50 million Airweave had invested in its new mattress design or the US$9 million the company had reportedly contributed toward the Olympic budget each year since it signed on as a sponsor in 2016.
"If the Olympics cannot be held, as long as we are alive it is OK," he said. Instead, he said, the company might be able to recoup its investments by providing mattresses for the Los Angeles Olympics — in 2028.
Written by: Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida
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