The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to showcase Japan’s recovery efforts following the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. That opportunity appears to be evaporating in the intense summer heat and rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Like other volunteers, Michiko Saito has been excited to participate in the softball matches that kicked off this week in her native Fukushima — the prefecture that experienced the world’s worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl in 1986.

In a symbolic move, Fukushima Azuma Stadium has been chosen as the venue for the very first event of the Games, where defending softball champion Japan took on Australia on Wednesday, ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony in Tokyo.

But earlier this month, the governor of the prefecture announced that the competitions will be held behind closed doors, citing virus safety concerns. The stadium is hosting three softball games each on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as the July 28 baseball opener between Japan and the Dominican Republic. Spectators will be banned from all of them.

“This is turning out to be nothing like what I’d expected,” says Saito, executive director of Utsukushima Sports Rooters, a Fukushima-based sports volunteering nonprofit.

While volunteers will still help organizers with Games-related operations, “City Cast” members, who are considered the face of the Olympics and are tasked with guiding traffic and visitors around the venues, have been left with nothing to do.

“I was hoping the Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve Fukushima’s image and thank the international community for their support by showing how far we’ve come since the disaster,” Saito says. “But I’m afraid that message may not be delivered.”

A police officer patrols around the Fukushima Azuma Stadium on Tuesday. | KYODO
A police officer patrols around the Fukushima Azuma Stadium on Tuesday. | KYODO

The Olympic Games were initially billed as the “Recovery Olympics” — an opportunity to shine on a global stage and demonstrate northeastern Japan’s reconstruction efforts following the 2011 disaster, which left more than 15,000 dead and thousands more missing while crippling reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But that objective appears to have taken a back seat as organizers scramble to host the sporting extravaganza amid surging coronavirus cases and the capital’s notoriously sweltering summer heat.

Instead, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to realize the Olympics as “proof of human victory against the coronavirus,” while in recent months emphasizing his resolve to host a “safe and secure” Games. Tokyo reported 1,832 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, up from 1,149 the same day a week ago. The event is also looking to be one of the hottest and most humid in Olympics history, raising concerns over athletes’ safety.

Much remains to be done in the aftermath of the 2011 crisis. Approximately 40,000 people are still displaced according to the Reconstruction Agency. And while a good portion of the disaster-related infrastructure work has been completed in coastal cities ravaged by tsunami, the resilience of affected communities will be tested after the government reduced its quake relief budget drastically after a 10-year, ¥31.3 trillion spending spree. For the five years from fiscal 2021, a reconstruction budget of ¥1.6 trillion has been allocated — a fraction of the amount it spent during the previous decade.

Meanwhile, complicated decommissioning work at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant continues, with operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco) aiming to scrap the plant sometime between 2041 and 2051. Critics, however, have cast doubt on the schedule, citing the extremely high radiation levels, delayed probes and lack of necessary technology to extract around 900 tons of melted fuel debris.

And in April, the government authorized plans to release treated radioactive water from the damaged plant into the Pacific Ocean after a two-year preparatory period. While the government said it will reinforce public relations initiatives to highlight the water’s safety and promised that Tepco will offer compensation if negative rumors regarding local agricultural and marine products circulate, concerns remain.

The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima in February | KYODO
The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima in February | KYODO

“I think people in Fukushima harbored mixed feelings about the Olympics to begin with. We were both excited and somewhat skeptical about the event,” says Riken Komatsu, a Fukushima-based activist and author of the award-winning book “Shin Fukko-ron” (“New Reconstruction Theory”).

“But the fact is that reconstruction work and decontamination efforts are still ongoing. Scrapping the plant is difficult and will likely take ages, while there’s the issue of releasing treated water into the sea,” he says. “My friends in the construction industry are also complaining that talented engineers are being recruited for the Tokyo Olympics, leaving Fukushima with less experienced workers.

“So the question is whether the ‘Recovery Olympics’ will live up to its moniker,” he says. “I doubt it.”

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