Tokyo pitched itself as “a safe pair of hands” when it was awarded the Olympics seven-and-a-half years ago.
“The certainty was a crucial factor,” Craig Reedie, then-International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president, said after the 2013 vote in Buenos Aires.
However, on Wednesday nothing was certain as Tokyo’s postponed Olympics hit the 100-days-to-go mark.
Despite surging cases of COVID-19, myriad scandals and overwhelming public opposition to holding the Games, organizers and the IOC are pushing on.
Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics celebrated Japan’s rapid recovery from defeat in World War II. These Olympics will be marked by footnotes and asterisks.
The athletes will aim high, of course, but the goals elsewhere will be modest — get through it, avoid becoming a “super-spreader” event and stoke some national pride knowing few other nations could have pulled this off.
“The government is very conscious of how ‘the world’ views Japan,” Gill Steel, who teaches political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto, wrote in an e-mail. “Canceling the Olympics would have been seen, at some level, as a public failure on the international stage.”
The price will be steep when the Olympics open on July 23. The official cost is US$15.4 billion.
Olympic spending is tough to track, but several government audits suggest it might be twice that much, and all but US$6.7 billion is public money.
The Switzerland-based IOC generates 91 percent of its income from selling broadcast rights and sponsorship. That amounts to at least US$5 billion in a four-year cycle, but the revenue flow from networks such as US-based NBC has been stalled by the postponement.
What does Tokyo get out of the 17-day sports circus?
Fans from abroad are banned, tourism is out and there will be no room for neighborhood partying. Athletes are being told to arrive late, leave early and maneuver around a moving maze of regulations.
There are also reputational costs for Japan and the IOC: a bribery scandal, botched planning and repeated misogyny in the Tokyo Olympic leadership.
The IOC is betting Tokyo would be a distraction — “the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel”— as the closing ceremony comes just six months before the opening of the boycott-threatened Beijing Winter Olympics.
Various polls suggest up to 80 percent of Japanese want the Olympics canceled or postponed, and many scientists are opposed.
“It is best to not hold the Olympics given the considerable risks,” said Norio Sugaya, an infectious diseases expert at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama.
Japan’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been almost nonexistent, few will get shots before the Olympics open, and Tokyo has raised its “alert level” with another wave of cases predicted at about the time of the opening ceremony.
More than 9,500 deaths in Japan have been attributed to COVID-19, good by global measures, but poor by standards in Asia.
So what would be the impact of 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from more than 200 nations and territories entering Japan, joined by tens of thousands of officials, judges, media and broadcasters?
“The risks are high in Japan. Japan is dangerous, not a safe place at all,” Sugaya said.
The heavily sponsored torch relay with 10,000 runners crisscrossing Japan also presents hazards.
Legs scheduled for Osaka this week were pulled from the streets because of surging COVID-19 cases and relocated to a city park — with no spectators allowed.
Other legs across Japan are also sure to be disrupted.
The IOC and Japanese politicians decided a year ago to postpone, but not cancel the Olympics, driven by inertia and the clout of Japanese ad giant Dentsu Inc, which has lined up a record US$3.5 billion in local sponsorship — probably three times more than any previous Olympics.
“I think the government knows full well the Japanese public doesn’t want the Olympics as of now, but no one wants to be the one to pull the plug,” Aki Tonami, who teaches political science at the University of Tsukuba, wrote in an e-mail.
The Olympics might also determine the fate of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who replaced Shinzo Abe seven months ago.
It was Abe who famously told IOC voters in 2013 that the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster of March 11, 2011, was “under control.”
Despite being billed as the “Recovery Olympics,” the northeastern area of Japan is still hurting a decade later. Many blame the Olympics for the slow recovery and siphoning off resources.
“Suga’s fate is sealed,” Tonami said. “I think he knows his tenure as a PM will not be a long one, so even though it would be nice for him personally to pull it off, it probably doesn’t change the political conditions around him.”
Steel was more optimistic.
“His government has a higher chance of surviving, even thriving, if they can pull off a successful Olympics — risky strategy, obviously, if it is a disaster,” Steel said.
IOC president Thomas Bach has repeatedly called Tokyo the “best prepared Olympics in history,” and he has restated it during the pandemic.
Handsome venues went up quickly, including the US$1.4 billion National Stadium designed by Kengo Kuma and, though expensive, the Games were on track until the pandemic hit.
However, the “safe pair of hands” have often been shaky.
Tokyo’s initial logo was scrapped after claims it was plagiarized, the original stadium concept was dropped when costs soared past US$2 billion and organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori — a former Japanese prime minister — stepped down two months ago after making derogatory comments about women.
Artistic director Hiroshi Sasaki left a few weeks later, essentially for the same reason.
On top of it all, French prosecutors believe Tokyo landed the Olympics by channeling bribes to IOC voters. Rio de Janeiro was awarded the 2016 Olympics the same way, prosecutors allege.
Tsunekazu Takeda, an IOC member at the time and head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, was forced to resign two years ago in the vote-buying scandal. He denied any wrongdoing.
Lisa Kihl, who studies sports governance and is director of the Global Institute for Responsible Sport Organizations at the University of Minnesota, said corruption has become “institutionalized” in many sports governing bodies, particularly those operating across national borders.
“It’s so easy to make money off the system,” Kihl said. “Nobody is going to rock the boat because everybody is benefiting from it. Professional sports organizations within a country — specifically the US — have to abide by the rules of that country. Internationally, there is no body to hold organizations like the IOC accountable. Until sports internationally are governed like financial institutions, it’s not going to change.”
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