As the curtain falls on Tokyo’s Olympics, delayed and curtailed by the coronavirus, Japan’s athletes can chalk it up as a triumph, having bagged more gold medals than ever before. For Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga it’s more of a letdown, unlikely to improve his chances in a looming general election or provide much of a boost to the economy.
We take a look at how the unprecedented sports spectacle fared on a number of metrics.
The Tokyo Games were initially dubbed the no-fun Olympics due to unprecedented public-health restrictions that limited the movement of athletes to sports venues and their residence. They underwent daily tests, ate in dining halls with seats individually separated by plastic shields and largely stayed away from the general public. Many also struggled with the oppressive summer heat.
In competition, a few tiny nations roared such as San Marino, with about 34,000 people, which became the least-populous nation to take a medal when Alessandra Perilli won the bronze in the women’s trap shooting. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz won the first gold medal for the Philippines, which has been competing in the Olympics since 1924 and Norway’s Karsten Warholm had one of the most memorable celebrations of the Games when he won the men’s 400-meter hurdles and ripped his shirt open after crossing the line in world-record time.
Japan has posted its best-ever Olympic haul, winning more than 20 gold medals as of Friday.
Suga repeatedly promised a “safe and secure” Games, even as many feared inviting tens of thousands of people from around the world would result in a superspreader event.
Organizers reported a total of 382 COVID-19 infections directly connected with the Olympics as of Aug. 6, with visitors accounting for slightly more a third of the total. But the event has coincided with a surge in domestic cases to their worst levels since the pandemic began.
Experts said the staging of the Games led to a more relaxed atmosphere that may have made the public less careful about virus measures, and thus contributed to the problem.
Few global leaders showed up for the opening ceremony for a Games held almost entirely without spectators, meaning Suga lost the chance to burnish his diplomatic credentials.
At home, while public interest in the Games jumped alongside Japan’s record medal tally, it’s unlikely Suga will get credit for having pressed ahead with the event in the face of public opposition.
The most recent poll, released two days after the opening ceremony, found support for the Suga Cabinet at 34% — its lowest since he took office in September. While the opposition lacks enough support to oust his Liberal Democratic Party, Suga risks losing seats in a general election that must be held by the end of November.
The Tokyo Games were supposed to be a major driver for the world’s third-largest economy, with the event closely tied to the government’s pre-pandemic plans to attract 40 million overseas visitors a year. That led to a construction boom in the years leading up to the Olympics, including the eight new venues built for the Games.
That all changed as the virus struck, with the expected boosts from ticket sales, hotel stays and eating out disappearing after the borders were tightened and organizers decided to largely ban even domestic spectators.
Economists have given a range of estimates for the actual economic impact, with Bloomberg Economics’ Yuki Masujima projecting around ¥1.7 trillion ($15.5 billion), including the amount spent on infrastructure for the events. Daiwa Institute of Research’s Kenji Kanda notes that some hopes remain that the Olympics will support domestic demand, following Japan’s gold medal haul.
As the Olympics kicked off, supermarket sales were given a leg up, presumably as people stayed home to watch the Games and treated themselves to slightly nicer take-home meals, Kanda said.
Winning a record number of gold medals would normally be good news for investors — analysts have shown how the Nikkei 225 Stock Average almost always rises when Japan gets gold medals in double figures.
This time, shares have barely budged during the Games, with the stock-market benchmark trading near year-to-date lows. The index is among the worst-performing among developed markets this year.
The latest wave of COVID-19 cases may have put the brakes on an expected upswing. Some predict that if things worsen, the expected scenario of economic recovery in the autumn might even be off the cards. Others insist the growing vaccination numbers and consistently low death toll in the current wave mean the outlook from September is bright as the economy reopens.
Equality and diversity
Japan held the diversity-themed Games without having passed a long-promised law meant to promote understanding of LGBT issues, frustrating campaigners who had seen the event as a chance for progress. With the choice of biracial Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka to light the Olympic flame sparking both praise and criticism, the Games proved to be an opportunity for the media to focus on a range of equality issues in Japan and worldwide.
The U.K.’s diving gold medalist Tom Daley — a gay man — became a social media favorite in Japan as much for knitting in the stands as for his sporting prowess, while New Zealand trans athlete Laurel Hubbard was a lightning rod for arguments over fairness and inclusion. It’s unclear whether any of this will translate into concrete change for under-represented groups in Japan.
Tokyo 2020 organizers said ahead of the Games that the event would be not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative, thanks to the use of carbon credits. A further reduction in the carbon footprint is expected due to the staging of the Games largely without spectators, with a final calculation to be made after the event.
An analysis published in the journal Nature Sustainability this year found that the sustainability of the Olympics has declined over time, with Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 the least sustainable.
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