(Tokyo) Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and neighboring areas last week in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.
He again promised that the Tokyo Games will be “safe” and tried to dissociate the state of emergency from the fate of the Games.
But opposition to their holding is gaining strength and calls for an annulment are increasing. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and local organizers have already warned that a further postponement is unthinkable: either the Games will start on July 23 as planned, or they will be canceled.
Two polls recently published by the Kyodo news agency and by broadcaster TBS show that 80% of participants want the Olympics to be canceled or postponed, or even believe they will not take place. Negative responses are up 15 to 20 percentage points from last month.
“The Japanese public is increasingly tempted to oppose the holding of the Games this summer, and the imposition of a state of emergency reinforces the perception that it is a lost cause,” the political scientist Koichi Nakano, from Sophia University in Tokyo.
But public fears run up against several obstacles: Olympic finances, geopolitics and even the honor of a country.
Japanese taxpayers spent billions of dollars organizing the Games; the IOC, which relies heavily on income generated by television, saw its finances battered by the postponement of the Games; and China is preparing to host the Beijing Winter Games in 13 months if Tokyo stumbles.
“Japan’s position in Asia and in the world is very important, especially in the context of its rivalry with China,” said Mr. Nakano. It would be a nightmare (for Japan’s political leaders) not to be able to host the first Games after COVID and for that honor to go to China. ”
He adds that the government absolutely wanted to avoid a state of emergency, which could be extended beyond February 7 and be imposed elsewhere in the country. This could lead skeptics to conclude that they are right and present a new threat to the Games.
The organizers promised very strict “anti-virus” measures when the Games were held. But here’s what awaits them, with or without a vaccine.
They must bring 15,400 Olympians and Paralympians, from 200 countries and territories, safely to Tokyo, while protecting the Japanese population. Add to that tens of thousands of coaches, judges, referees, volunteers, guests and more. And possibly hundreds of thousands of spectators, some even arriving from abroad, if their presence is authorized.
Organizers are considering a myriad of measures to counter the virus, but concrete solutions will likely need to be presented before the Olympic Torch Relay begins on March 25. Some 10,000 runners will then cross Japan to get to Tokyo.
It was also at the end of March 2020 that the Games had been postponed, even though the organizers insisted until then that they would take place.
Japan is keen to organize the Games to justify the irrecoverable US 25 billion already invested, to satisfy local sponsors who have spent US $ 3.5 billion, and to win its geopolitical rivalry with neighboring China.
For the IOC, it is a question of stability for shaky finances, since 73% of its income comes from the sale of broadcasting rights – the presentation of the Games on television. Another 18% comes from sponsorships.
Unlike the NBA, British football or other sports, the IOC only has two events – the Summer Games and the Winter Games. Dozens of international sports federations and several of the National Olympic Committees depend on the generosity of the IOC.
IOC President Thomas Bach admitted that hosting the Games was a “monumental task” and that their financial situation was difficult.
Doctor Atsuo Hamada, an infectious disease specialist from Tokyo Medical University, warned that their organization can be a source of “pride” and short-term economic benefits, but also viruses.
“The Games may be a factor that would contribute to an increased risk of infections,” he said.
Doctor Hamada believes that the state of emergency changes the situation compared to last month, or even compared to November when Mr. Bach visited Tokyo and mentioned a “toolbox” of measures to fight the virus. Dr Hamada believes the average Japanese will not be vaccinated until May.
He said the “bubble method” used with success by the NBA and NHL seemed possible at one point. But the Olympics would require dozens of “bubbles” in a metropolitan area of 35 million people.
“The situation changed with the declaration of a state of emergency,” he said. The organization of the Olympics is now more difficult compared to last year. ”
Japan, with its 126 million inhabitants, has fought the virus more effectively than several other countries, with a death toll of 4,000. Last week, some 20,000 “socially distanced” supporters attended the final of the national soccer championship at the new US $ 1.4 billion national stadium.
Also last week, an influential IOC member, Canadian Dick Pound, said that priority vaccination of athletes would be the most “realistic” strategy to secure the Games.
This seemed to contradict Mr Bach, who encouraged “all participants” to be vaccinated, but saying that athletes should not go in front of everyone. He also said that vaccination of athletes would not be mandatory.
Mr Pound also told the daily Washington post that there are “three chances to one” that the Games take place.
The IOC needs a successful Games after the Rio 2016 and Sochi 2014 scandals. Tokyo presented itself as “reliable hands” when it won the bet in 2013, but a corruption scandal led to the downfall of Tsunekazu Takeda, an IOC member who also chaired the Japanese Olympic Committee.
What’s more, Beijing’s human rights record has deteriorated despite promises made before the 2008 Games. Today, the 2022 Winter Games are overshadowed by the incarceration of a million Uyghurs in northwest China.
“I think it is very likely that China will host the Winter Games […] as proof of her successful handling of the pandemic and her global leadership in public health, said by email Sheena Greitens, who teaches Asian politics at the University of Texas. I think Japanese leaders will want to show leadership and polish their international image, especially if it can be presented as bringing us into a post-COVID era. ”
John Horne, who co-wrote the book Understanding the Olympics and teaches sports sociology at Waseda University in Tokyo, does not rule out a cancellation of the Games.
“It’s not something imaginable right now, and organizers often deny it, but it is a possibility,” he said.
“There are several reasons why the Japanese organizers do not want to give up the possibility of presenting a united planet. But obviously there are several issues in bringing the world together right now, and not just the virus. ”