Friday will mark what was to be a glorious day for the nation: The opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a global sporting event that draws spectators, media and political delegations from around the world to watch elite athletes showcase their competitive prowess.
But the novel coronavirus sabotaged those plans. The games are now slated to begin a year from now on July 23, 2021.
As organizers commemorate a benchmark originally anticipated to be a starting line, it’s unclear which organizing body and to what degree taxpayers will shoulder the cost of delaying the event, and whether the pandemic will have subsided by this time next year — not just in this country but globally. Many factors remain undecided, while others seem beyond speculation or control.
The country unwillingly and unwittingly made history in March when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the 2020 Games would be postponed, making Japan the host nation of the first Olympiad to be rescheduled for reasons other than war.
Plans to host the games next summer are predicated on the assumption that the virus will have been eradicated by then. For that to happen, not only would a vaccine need to have been developed and mass produced, it would also need to have been distributed in every country whose athletes and travelers intend to attend the games.
Yet as the virus continues to ravage countries around the planet, headlines paint a discouraging picture.
“Can we safely get athletes to Tokyo and compete without putting their lives at risk?” freelance sports journalist Aaron Bauer asked the Japan Times. “I don’t know how anyone can know, and you’re just going to have to go by blind faith,” he said.
A number of countermeasures have been proposed to prevent the virus from spreading when hundreds of thousands of travelers from around the world descend upon the country next year. The safety of athletes and spectators remains a major concern.
Last week, Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto said the central government may ease travel restrictions for athletes who will participate in the 2020 Games.
What measures will be taken to prevent cluster infections in the Athletes Village, where 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes will stay, are still undecided.
Spectators, organizers said, will likely be subjected to temperature checks, long lines to enter venues and further measures that require them to wear masks and avoid yelling, hugging and giving high-fives.
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee, has reportedly declared April 2021 the deadline by which organizers need to decide how to move forward with the games.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, vowed the games would go ahead. Both have made it clear they believe further postponement will result in cancellation.
Speaking last week to French newspaper L’Equipe, Bach admitted canceling the 2020 Games would have been easier and that the IOC would have collected hefty insurance revenue.
“We are there to organize the games, not to cancel them,” Bach told L’Equipe.
Last week, Bach suggested spectator attendance at some events may be reduced. Mori pushed back and rejected the notion, telling Kyodo News in an interview that Bach was “assuming the worst-case scenario.”
Postponement will inevitably pile onto the already bloated budget for the 2020 Games.
It’s unclear how the additional expenses will be shared by organizers, stakeholders and sponsors at the international, national and regional levels, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.
The games were originally estimated to cost about ¥1.35 trillion.
Officially, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said it was spending $12.6 billion on the event. But a national audit last year revealed the expense to the capital city was double that figure, and the delay is estimated to cost anywhere from between $2 billion and $6 billion.
The International Olympic Committee has said it will shoulder around $800 million in additional expenses, but it’s unclear what will be asked of stakeholders in Japan and how much of the burden will fall on taxpayers.
Since the growth in virus cases hit fever pitch in April, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has issued financial assistance to local businesses, several budget revisions to accommodate the economic downturn and a number of financial measures that together has expended more than 90 percent of the city’s discretionary budget. The central government is being squeezed for cash as well.
But it also seems the unexpected turn of events is dampening excitement among residents. A recent poll conducted by Kyodo News found that fewer than one in four people in the nation favored hosting the games next year.
A third of respondents believed the games should be postponed another year while another third said they should be canceled altogether.
Earlier this month, organizers in Japan announced that all 42 venues had been secured again, and released next year’s competition schedule — which is nearly identical to the original.
If all goes according to plan, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games next July will welcome 11,000 athletes, who will compete for 339 gold medals across 33 sports leading up to the closing ceremony on Aug. 8.
“At the end of the day, what matters much more than anything else is the status of the pandemic,” Zimbalist said. “If we don’t have a reliable and effective vaccine in time to inoculate all of the athletes and all of the people who would be attending the games, then I don’t know if you can safely go ahead with the games.”
“It’s quite uncertain at this time whether we’re going to have such a vaccine.”
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