With the issues that presaged the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics remaining unresolved, and the resulting questions largely unanswered, the possible scenarios for the global sporting event have been reduced to a binary.
Experts and organizers say there are two choices: stay the course and hold the games to give the country’s battered economy a lifeline, or cancel them and avoid exposure to what could still be an ongoing global pandemic.
“Either the games take place or they're canceled,” said Richard “Dick” Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, during a phone interview with The Japan Times.
“COVID-19 is not going to be gone by July 2021,” he went on, adding that postponing again is not an option. “The fact that it’s under full — or virtually full — control in Japan doesn’t answer all the questions.”
Neither option is ideal. But if the games are to be canceled, experts remain divided over how soon the decision needs to be made, not just for the sake of political expediency but to prevent severe damage to the Japanese economy and to give stakeholders a fighting chance to recoup their losses.
On Wednesday, the Tokyo Organising Committee announced that organizers agreed during a meeting in late September to reduce the total budget of ¥1.35 trillion by ¥30 billion — or roughly 2 percent — under a “simplified” plan to hold the games next summer. The tentative plan entails 53 revisions including reduced spectatorship, shortened employment terms for organizing committee staff and fewer decorations at competition venues.
The ¥30 billion reduction, however, is a fraction of the additional cost unleashed by the one-year deferral, which organizers estimate could exceed ¥300 billion and push the total budget past ¥1.6 trillion.
Meanwhile, cash handouts and zero-interest loans issued by the government to individuals and businesses, many of which are still suffering from the economic costs of the lengthy pandemic, have laid a heavy burden on an already slumped economy.
In July, only a quarter of people in Japan were looking forward to the games, according to a Kyodo News poll. More recent surveys show that, despite ballooning costs, wavering public support has since rebounded.
Media and business sponsors, however, are apparently nervous, with reports claiming some have ended their contracts even though renewal negotiations were expected to begin later this month.
“The cost of canceling the games depends on the timing,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. “Canceling beyond December could cost more than holding the games and trying to recover the losses.”
The debate resurfaced in early September after organizers and political leaders doubled down with a string of high-profile statements solidifying their commitment to the current plan.
The 2020 games will proceed “with or without COVID-19,” proclaimed International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates and Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto. Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the games will be held “no matter what,” while Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto said they will happen “at any cost” and then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted the country will host the event “by all means.”
After he became the country's leader in mid-September, Yoshihide Suga met with Koike to reinforce these sentiments.
Successfully holding the games, they say, would symbolize the resilience of humankind.
“All of them are cheerleaders,” Zimbalist said. “I regard those comments as hortatory — they're meant for public consumption as words of encouragement but they shouldn't be interpreted as actual projections of reality.”
Leading up to the announcement in March that the 2020 Games would be postponed until summer next year, messaging from the same individuals was scattered and officials seemed to avoid breaking the news until the last possible moment.
The sequence of coordinated statements this time, said sports journalist Aaron Bauer, suggests a decision has already been made behind closed doors.
“When you have all the groups in lockstep, that means there's a lot of decisions that have already been taken behind the scenes,” Bauer said. “They still have to figure out how to get athletes from countries that are in hot spots to areas where they can train safely and participate in the Olympics at peak athletic capability.”
The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games were expected to draw more than 15,000 athletes from over 170 countries to compete over the course of 30 days in 43 venues. As the pandemic continues to upend life in all corners of the globe, it seems impossible to predict how much of that original plan will remain come next summer.
Last month the government put forward virus countermeasures for Olympic and Paralympic athletes before and after they have entered the country.
Athletes competing at next year’s games will be exempted from entry restrictions currently placed on 159 countries but will still have to test negative for COVID-19, and will be asked to monitor their health within the 72 hours before they leave their own country. Upon arrival, they will be tested again and have their movements monitored during their stay.
Officials will most likely announce a similar plan for travelers from abroad in spring.
The chief concern that critics have of hosting the games next year is the self-evident risk of inviting people from all over the world during an ongoing health crisis.
Worldwide, the novel coronavirus has infected 36 million and taken more than a million lives.
While the United States, India and Brazil are suffering the heaviest casualties at present, recent numbers indicate many Western countries are on the precipice of a second wave.
Meanwhile, the situation in Japan is significantly less severe. As of Wednesday, the country has recorded more than 86,000 infections and just over 1,600 deaths.
Other Southeast and East Asian countries and regions — Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, among others — all saw waves of new infections but more recently seem to be in a lull.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization announced that, including Japan, 167 countries accounting for about 70 percent of the world population had signed onto a program striving to achieve the fair and equitable distribution of a vaccine.
In September, IOC President Thomas Bach warned that a COVID-19 vaccine won’t act as a “silver bullet.” Indeed, while research in several countries is showing promising signs that a vaccine could be produced early next year, the prospect of eradicating the virus completely remains hypothetical.
The timing and efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine will largely determine how quickly the world rescues itself from this crisis. However, socioeconomic factors such as the rate of production, price and the willingness of individuals to voluntarily receive the vaccine could create a bottleneck, said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Public Health at King’s College London.
We may see a vaccine developed by the end of the year, Shibuya said, but the real question is whether it's effective, lasts long enough and not only prevents symptoms but blocks transmission as well.
Even if Japan has subdued the virus by then — an unlikely scenario, experts say — the influx of foreigners from countries that haven’t could trigger another major outbreak. With hundreds of thousands of athletes, coaches, trainers, celebrities, journalists, politicians and spectators expected to descend upon the country, one need only imagine the mayhem a single positive test result — let alone a cluster infection — would cause to recognize the gravity of the task at hand.
“Japan has not suppressed the virus. Infections have been fluctuating but there has been constant community transmission since May,” Shibuya said.
“Japan needs to show that it can contain the virus,” he said. “It hasn't done that yet.”
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