The Olympic torch relay will begin its long journey through Japan this week even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Not only was the Greek leg of the relay canceled, public events during the early stages of the Japanese leg have been scaled back or eliminated completely to prevent the virus from spreading further. Nonetheless, the relay is scheduled to kick off in Fukushima Prefecture on Thursday after which around 10,000 runners are due to carry the torch through 859 municipalities across all 47 Japanese prefectures over the course of 121 days before reaching Tokyo in July for the opening ceremony.
Much like a “canary in a coal mine,” experts say the torch relay could foreshadow what might happen if the 2020 Games are held before the pandemic subsides.
“The torch relay is designed to show off a country before the Olympics: You have inspirational people carrying a torch in small towns across the country and thousands of people lining the streets everywhere they go to see it,” freelance sports journalist Aaron Bauer told The Japan Times. “This is the test that’s going to see what the future of public events in Japan is going to look like.”
Tokyo 2020 boasts that 98 percent of the Japanese population will be able to reach the torch relay by vehicle or train within one hour, and that the route was “designed to ensure large numbers of people across Japan can line the route, cheer on the torchbearers and create a festival-like atmosphere.”
Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, announced last week that stage events will be canceled and arrival and departure ceremonies closed to the public when the torch relay passes through Fukushima, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures. Organizers said countermeasures in other prefectures will be announced at least a week before the torch reaches those parts of the country.
Experts are still concerned the relay could exacerbate the crisis in Japan.
“You’ve got sponsors with floats before and after the torch runners, people handing out goods, live sites at the end of each day. … There’s so many people involved with the torch relay,” Bauer said. “We’re going to see it play out in real time.”
To postpone or not
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in more than 170 countries, calls for the 2020 Games to be downsized, postponed or even canceled have been voiced by athletes, politicians and organizations from around the world. Some have even proposed the games be dispersed to different venues or relocated entirely, while others say they should be held behind closed doors with no spectators.
But while a number of possible scenarios have emerged in recent weeks, most experts seem to agree that postponement is the most sensible — if not inevitable — way to avoid reigniting the outbreak when a wave of visitors travel to the country in July. How far the games should be pushed back, however, is up for debate.
On Friday, the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee submitted a request to IOC President Thomas Bach, asking him not to hold the summer games until the pandemic is under control.
The same day, USA Swimming called on the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to advocate for the games to be postponed by one year.
Its French counterpart quickly followed suit, and on Saturday, the swimming federation of France also called for postponing the event due to the pandemic.
For his part, Bach said the IOC was “considering different scenarios” for the Tokyo Games.
“Hosting the games as scheduled, under these circumstances, is going to be difficult,” said Kansai University professor emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto. “But so is canceling them completely.”
Miyamoto believes a one-year postponement is the most logical option.
Delaying the games by two or three months could interfere with American sports and would prove meaningless if the pandemic were still active in other countries, he said. A two-year deferment would make the Tokyo Games clash with the 2022 World Cup, and also force athletes to essentially upend their current training regimen and start from scratch.
Nevertheless, Japan would suffer huge financial losses if the 2020 Games were postponed.
Delaying them by one year would cost Japan up to ¥640.8 billion ($5.8 billion), according to research by Miyamoto published Thursday. That figure includes both the cost of the games and a year’s worth of potential revenue, but does not include the financial toll the coronavirus outbreak would have on the country’s tourism industry.
But canceling the games, however, would cost Japan more than ¥4.5 trillion (about $41 billion), according to the same report.
“Under any scenario, it’s likely that Japan’s economy would suffer the most,” Miyamoto said.
On the other hand, relocating, dispersing or scaling back public participation would be unfair to the host country or simply nonsensical, according to Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.
“The notion of relocation makes no sense whatsoever,” Zimbalist said. “What we have with the coronavirus is a pandemic. That means that it’s worldwide and it’s extremely unlikely that you can find a city in the world that would be capable of hosting the games.”
Holding them without spectators also makes little sense, he added, because not only would 11,000 athletes and 6,000 trainers and coaches from around the world still face the risk of infection, the host country and countless sponsors would needlessly suffer massive financial losses.
In any case, strong measures must be taken to protect the athletes themselves, said Koji Wada, a professor in public health at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo.
Athletes in virtually every sport are at risk of becoming infected, Wada said. Sports like judo or wrestling involve heavy physical contact, gymnasts often perform on surfaces covered in the sweat of other athletes, and swimmers commonly use the same facilities to change, shower and prepare for their next race.
“If one athlete becomes infected, anybody who used the same facilities or competed against them could also be infected,” he said. “A situation like that has to be avoided.”
In the end, Wada said, the decision will be a political one.
Running out of time
With four months to go until the opening ceremony, a growing number of athletes, organizers and experts are calling on the International Olympic Committee to take action or — at the very least — put forward a deadline for a decision.
Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC Athletes Commission and retired star with Canada’s ice hockey team, said last week that the IOC vowing to press ahead with plans to host the games is “insensitive and irresponsible.”
Due to quarantines and lockdowns amid the pandemic, athletes around the world can’t access gyms or training facilities. Countless competitions that serve as qualifying events for the games have been canceled as well.
Still, despite growing pressure to postpone the games, the IOC has remained steadfast in its commitment to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in its entirety as originally planned.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the country aims to ensure the 2020 Games can be held “completely” while Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike called canceling them or hosting them behind closed doors “unthinkable.”
Still, Reuters, quoting two unidentified sources, reported Sunday that members of the Tokyo Organizing Committee are quietly preparing for scenarios that include postponement and reduced spectator attendance.
Public support also seems to be dwindling after nearly 70 percent of Japanese said they don’t expect the 2020 Games to be held this summer in a Kyodo News survey released last week.
Apprehension is growing among organizers as well.
In February, the longest serving member of the IOC said organizers need to make a decision by May whether to go forward with the 2020 Games in its current form. Earlier this month, a member of the Tokyo Organizing Committee came under fire after suggesting the games be postponed by one or two years.
But as the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the IOC continues to deflect speculation and stamp out rumor.
To avoid further friction and confusion, Smith College professor Zimbalist said the IOC needs to acknowledge the risks posed by the pandemic, and speak honestly about what might happen next.
“There needs to be more straightforward communication and less spin,” he said. “And less distortion of the truth.”
Though the IOC maintains the authority to make the final decision, there is precedent for host countries backing out and stakeholders wielding substantial influence.
The 2020 Games, in fact, are being held in the summer — instead of in October as was the case for the 1964 Tokyo Games — because of pressure from American television broadcaster and radio network NBC, which spent more than $12 billion on broadcasting rights for 10 Olympic Games from 2011 through 2032 and accounts for more than half of the money the IOC gets from television broadcasters.
Experts say organizers are listening closely to the World Health Organization as the situation worsens.
As the pandemic spreads and tensions rise in this delicate power balance, only time will tell the fate of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.