The debate is over.
In an official communiqué in mid-June, G7 leaders reiterated: ‘our support for the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in a safe and secure manner as a symbol of global unity in overcoming Covid-19’.
Already, IOC vice-president John Coates, responding to a question about whether the Games would go on even if Tokyo was still under a state of emergency, had replied, ‘the answer is absolutely yes’.
And, calling the G7 statement ‘a great encouragement’, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach thanked the powerful group for its support.
“We take this as a great encouragement to deliver safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” said Bach, “for everybody in this spirit of worldwide solidarity.”
In May, Bach used a different forum to rub it in,
“The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible.”
It was in March last year that, their hands forced by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the IOC took the completely unprecedented step of postponing the 2020 Summer Olympic Games by a year. Originally scheduled to run from 24 July to 9 August 2020, the Games were moved to 23 July to 8 August 2021.
The pandemic thus won a battle. But the victors in a war which, just one short year ago, they seemed destined to lose are clearly the resolute IOC and their allies, the Japanese government. And this, despite steadily mounting opposition to the hosting of the Games from outside the host country.
Following several spikes, there was a rash of advisories against travelling to Japan. But the US took the Olympics host off the list just as the G7 convened.
However, a group of US public health experts publicly warned that hosting the Olympics could put athletes and the public at risk. They believe the IOC’s determination to hold the Games is not informed by the best medical science.
Speaking on American cable television, renowned Olympic commentator Bob Costas implied that there could be more than dire consequences, describing the commingling of hundreds of thousands of athletes and journalists and officials in one city as ‘a petri dish’.
Equally important perhaps was the growing opposition from within.
A mid-May Reuters report cited the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, which represents about 6,000 primary care doctors, as saying that, amid the surge in infections, hospitals in the Games’ host city ‘have their hands full and have almost no spare capacity’.
Public opinion polls conducted in the country put opposition to the Games at levels ranging from 70% to 80%. And of the 80,000 volunteers who at one point signed up to offer some kind of helping hand to organisers, about 10,000 said they would not participate—another body blow to organisers’ plans.
Business leaders too added their voice to the call. Japanese billionaire businessman Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of e-commerce giant Rakuten, described the hosting of the Games as a suicide mission. Coming from a Japanese, that is a very powerful analogy.
Asking ‘on what authority is it being forced through?’, SoftBank’s billionaire chief executive Mayoshi Son wrote this on Twitter: “But if 100,000 people descend on vaccine-laggard Japan and the mutant spreads, lives could be lost.”
One of the country’s leading newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, which was among the sponsors of the Games, accused Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of holding the Olympics ‘against the will of the public’. It called for the event to be cancelled.
And Opposition Leader Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called for world leaders and other VIPs to take part in the Olympics remotely but stopped short of calling for cancellation.
Arguing that only ‘absolutely essential’ visitors should be allowed in, he warned that Tokyo 2020 could cause an ‘explosion’ of new coronavirus infections.
“We shouldn’t let anyone into Japan other than those who are absolutely essential for the events,” he told Bloomberg. “That means athletes, referees and support staff.
“Leaders and president Bach can take part in the Opening Ceremony remotely. It’s perfectly simple in this day and age.”
Notwithstanding growing public opposition, the Japanese authorities have been adamant that the Games will go on. The Local Organising Committee says it has gone to great lengths to protect all and sundry, providing bio-secure environments for the athletes, banning foreign spectators and restricting local spectator attendance. Only a total of 10,000 spectators will be permitted.
For its part, as its spokesman made clear, the IOC has acknowledged the erosion of local support. Without changing course.
“We listen,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in May, “but we won’t be guided by public opinion.”
The intensification of opposition to the event came against the backdrop of two surges in infections; first in mid-January and second in mid-May. This prompted the government to declare states of emergency. The most recent one has only just been lifted.
Both in absolute and relative terms, Japan’s situation was quite benign in early June. With a population of 126.1 million, the country was ranked 34th in terms of total number of cases, put at 762,401.
Just over 706,000 affected people or 92.5% had recovered. Total deaths numbered 13,574 whereas the figure for deaths per million head of population stood at 107.
By comparison, for Trinidad and Tobago the corresponding deaths per million head of population figure was 402.
The organisers maintained they are confident the Games can be held safely and securely. To cancel them would be costly for both Japan and the IOC, especially owing to the loss of broadcasting revenues. From the organisers’ point of view, they simply would not go that route!
Scaled-back games can still generate plenty of broadcast revenue. The IOC earned an estimated US$4.5 billion for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, a powerful incentive to maintain the event. Further, Tokyo is officially spending US$15.4 billion to organise the games, and several government audits say it’s much more. About US$6.7 billion is public money. The IOC’s contribution is about US$1.5 billion.
But as lessons from India, the pre-Biden USA and a Bolsonaro-led Brazil have taught the world, a large influx of people (athletes and others) from all over the world is a recipe for disaster. They made the error of putting business and livelihoods before life. They reaped the whirlwind.
One might argue that the real issue for the world is not the safety and security of the two-week Games themselves. After tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, trainers, physiotherapists and others from every corner of the globe descend on Japan for the Games, they will return home!
Will those who sat back quarantined or otherwise sequestered in our living rooms to enjoy the Games on television or via online streaming have to hope against hope about Japan’s continuing safety?
And, no less importantly, our own country’s?