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Tokyo Olympics, Countdown To The Impossible Games

Though every day a new bit of bad COVID-related (and other) news arrives, the already once-delayed Summer Olympic Games must go on.

A police officer wearing a mask walks past Olympic rings at the entrance to Olympic Village
A police officer wearing a mask walks past Olympic rings at the entrance to Olympic Village
Philippe Mesmer and Philippe Pon

TOKYO — There will be a notable "before" and "after" for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The international competition, which was postponed a full-year due to the pandemic, will begin Friday. The countries slated to host the following Olympic Games (starting with China for the Winter Games in 2022 and France for the Summer Games in 2024) are likely paying close attention to the lessons they can draw from the trap the Japanese government fell into by wanting to maintain the event at all costs, defying the advice of medical experts and ignoring the overwhelming opposition of the majority of the Japanese public.

As a result of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases (particularly due to the Delta variant), the Olympics will be held under a state of emergency, with no spectators allowed at most stadiums and competitions. The event, which is meant to be a place for intercultural exchange, will be deprived of the festive character it is meant to symbolize.

The icing on the cake is that Japanese fans, who went to great lengths in order to secure tickets to volunteer at or attend the competition will be unable to do so. Yoshihide Suga's government has successfully aroused an almost unanimous distaste for the Olympics in the Japanese public, regardless of whether they previously opposed or supported the Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has followed its own roadmap regarding the pandemic, and its model focuses on guaranteeing resources and financing. Three-quarters of its revenue comes from the large sums gained via Olympic broadcasting, with 90 percent of that money going to national Olympic committees and international federations, all of which have been affected by the pandemic.

Empty stadiums in Tokyo: the Olympics will be held without spectators this year — Photo: Yohei Osada/AFLO/ZUMA

Mostly afraid that sponsors will withdraw (Toyota pulled out on Monday), the IOC has paid little attention to the feelings of the Japanese. It also appears to be the sole beneficiary of the event, as preparations for the Olympics have forced the Suga government to run away, like "a gambler who loses but keeps betting even more in the hopes of getting back on track," as political scientist Koichi Nakano puts it.

This naivete may be surprising for a country that is by most metrics considered to be extremely well-organized and efficient. Though this conception is true in many regards, it must be weighed against the fact that Japan is not exempt from mistakes. Some of these failures include the major pollution-related incidents of the 1960s and 1970s, which were slow to be recognized, and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant in 2011, which occurred due to a lack of regulation and state supervision. Another contemporary example is Japan's slow-moving vaccination campaign that continues to be held up due to bureaucratic red tape.

The governments of Shinzo Abe (2012-2020) and Suga have struggled to reconcile the fight against COVID-19 with hosting the Olympics. Both allowed themselves to be backed into a corner, as hosting the Games weaves a web of financial, cultural and political issues that have become impossible to disentangle.

First: the financial problem. The sheer sum of money invested in the Olympics has weighed heavily on the management of the event. The binding, rather one-sided contract the city of Tokyo signed with the IOC placed Japan, like any host country of Olympics, in a weak position. Only the IOC has the power to cancel the Games, with the stipulation being an outbreak of civil war or "reasonable fear that the safety of participants in the Games is threatened." Yet, a pandemic does not qualify as a "reasonable fear."

If the host country decides unilaterally to cancel the Games, then it is required to pay the cost of the cancellation; in this case, the Games will officially cost 12.6 billion euros, including 2.7 billion euros invested by sponsors.

The cost of cancellation was evaluated in May by the Nomura Research Institute, and it was found to be 1,810 billion yen, or 14 billion euros. The cost, which would weigh on the stakeholders (the Organizing Committee, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), the IOC, the city of Tokyo and Japan), is far greater than simply moving forward with the Games.

The fear of an "Olympic variant" has become increasingly more realistic

Japan has therefore preferred to maintain the Games, even if the arrival of nearly 80,000 athletes, staff and foreign journalists could lead to a new wave of COVID contamination. Several of them have already tested positive and the fear of an "Olympic variant" has become increasingly more realistic. "If the Games end up requiring a new declaration of emergency, the economic loss would be far greater than that of a cancellation," estimated Takahide Kiuchi, of the Nomura Institute, in May. This is now the case.

Second: the symbolic nature of the Games. In addition to these financial constraints, old wounds have dissuaded Japan from canceling. The country already had to give up the Tokyo Games in 1940. At the time, the Archipelago led a war of conquest in China and the army, which needed resources, opposed the expenses for the Games. In 2020, Japan did not want to become the only country in the world to have canceled the Olympic Games.

Third: the political element. In addition to this question of national pride, there is a lack of political will to cancel. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power since 1955 — with a brief absence in the early 1990s and late 2000s — guided Japan's dramatic recovery from the defeat of 1945. In the 1960s-1980s, it brought together currents from the center-left to the right, shaking the power of the opposing Socialist Party. Eventually, the LDP's opposition crumbled and the internal divisions gradually dissolved. Now, the party is back in power, even more rigid and cut off from the population than before, as the Japanese population has seen increasingly lower numbers of voter turnout.

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference on Japan's response to the coronavirus disease — Photo: POOL/ZUMA Wire

Ultimately, canceling the Games would have required a political will that Prime Minister Suga does not have. Not to mention, his G7 partners have hardly encouraged him to do so: Many of them are in fact allowing almost full stadiums and have relaxed sanitation measures despite new increases in cases of COVID-19. All of them have encouraged Suga to maintain the Games, even if it means having to bear the brunt of a wave of coronavirus, which would complicate Japan's record of "only" 821,000 cases and 15,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Tokyo Olympics will be rich in lessons on the constraints that weigh on a host country. The Japanese government is bound by its contractual commitments with the IOC, sponsors and television stations, and must in fact give up some of its sovereignty — including the power to decide what is desirable for its population from a health point of view. This is the impasse in which Mr. Suga has placed himself in, reduced to betting that everything goes forward without too much damage.

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