The Japanese prime minister and International Olympic Committee chief promised the Tokyo Games will demonstrate the world is winning the war against the coronavirus pandemic. But is it really a good idea to go ahead with the Olympics?
With the recent approval and rollout of vaccines in Britain, the United States and elsewhere, as well as the indication Japan could be doing the same in the early months of 2021, signs are that an end could be in sight.
For Japan, however, the risk of welcoming the world to its doorstep might not be worth the reward.
There are also ethical complexities in holding an international event at a time when much of the world will still have an uncertain path out of the pandemic, and Japan’s relative success in its pandemic strategy could be negatively impacted by allowing tens of thousands of people to enter from every part of the globe.
One concern is that people involved in the Olympics may be prioritized in receiving the vaccine.
It is such an issue that IOC President Thomas Bach addressed it when in Tokyo in November.
“We made it clear from the very beginning that the first priorities are for the nurses, medical doctors and everybody who keeps our society alive, despite the coronavirus crisis,” Bach said.
India, however, has already stated its athletes will get special treatment.
In late November, sports minister Kiren Rijiju said athletes and support staff bound for Tokyo will be given preference in receiving vaccines.
“We will ensure that all the international participants and organizers are given due importance in all the mechanisms to ensure their safety and security,” he told Indian media attending the Delhi Half Marathon.
There is also no guarantee the rollout of vaccines will go smoothly.
Already, Pfizer was forced to halve its production targets due to supply chain difficulties, and in the early days of inoculations in the United States and Britain there were cases, albeit a small number, of allergic reactions among health workers.
Japan has pledged to have secured enough vaccines to cover its entire population by the first half of 2021. It has begun preparations by enlisting local municipalities to prepare venues and personnel.
With its borders still closed to most nations, the few exceptions being for business travel and movement of students between close neighbors like China and South Korea with whom trade and economic links are extremely important, Japan has managed to keep relatively tight control over the virus.
The recent emergence of a new coronavirus strain has led the government to implement more stringent controls as a precautionary measure.
But if an Olympic-sized exception is created for Tokyo 2020 and vaccinations are not a requirement for games participants as Bach has stated, all the economic and emotional pain caused by closing the borders and restricting domestic movement and activity could be wasted.
Athletes will be widely and repeatedly tested to ensure they are virus-free in the village and on the field of play. Overseas spectators, however, look set to be exempted from even observing a 14-day quarantine period and from a requirement to avoid public transport.
Problems with the reliability of testing in some countries, Indonesia a recent example, means Japan may not be able to rely on expanding the system of business arrivals providing proof of a pre-departure negative test to gain entrance without quarantine.
Spectators from abroad will likely be asked to download a contact-tracing smartphone app and report on their health, putting the onus on them to comply, with Japan digital transition minister Takuya Hirai saying Sunday that the government is developing a system to track overseas visitors.
Japan’s populace, enduring a difficult New Year holiday period as coronavirus cases in large centers skyrocket, will have to wait until the spring to hear whether foreign spectators will be permitted to enter, putting 2020’s mask-wearing, hand-washing and social-distancing sacrifices at the mercy of the games machine.
Another question also remains. Even if the games go off without a virus hitch, will they still be worth the hefty — ¥1.35 trillion ($13.1 billion) before adding ¥294 billion in postponement costs — price tag?
If Tokyo is forced to hold a socially distanced games, there is a non-zero chance it will also miss the one thing that makes the games special for athletes, host-city residents and visitors — the party atmosphere.
Athletes will be required to enter and exit the Olympic Village just days before and after they finish competing, meaning the always celebrated post-competition blowouts will be off the table, and the public might be advised against gathering to celebrate the superhuman feats on the field of play, either in venues or elsewhere.
“I want to see a stadium that is full of passionate people,” two-time Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe, current President of World Athletics and a member of the Tokyo Games Coordination Commission, told Japanese media recently.
“It may be that stadiums don’t have quite as many people in for all sorts of bio and social distancing reasons and safety, it’s important. But I think we are at this stage where we are very much more adaptable and understand what the challenges are.”
Even so, the Japanese public seems to have increasingly turned against the idea of holding the games, with multiple polls showing similar results.
The games’ atmosphere has traditionally turned the tide of public opinion in favor of past Olympics — with the Sochi Winter Games and Rio Summer Games both examples — and that may be missing in Tokyo.
If the pandemic means Olympic-themed public events — and especially live sites where people without tickets can gather to watch the sporting action on big screens, have to be scaled back or canceled altogether — then the intangible but absolutely real “vibe” of the games may be absent.
At the organizers’ fifth coronavirus countermeasures coordination meeting in November, it was noted guidelines for municipalities operating coronavirus-curbed live sites will soon be released “taking into account the evolving global situation.”
If crowded scenes like those seen in the previous Olympic hubs are unable to be replicated in Tokyo’s Odaiba area, a sense of atmosphere that is often more memorable for those in attendance than the achievements witnessed in the sporting arenas will be missing.
Research from University of Calgary academics Harry Hiller and Richard Wanner has shown that even if there is pre-games apprehension among the public — particularly related to the cost of hosting — then those fears are often forgotten if the games are considered “successful and inclusive.”
So even if the games go perfectly, with few to no coronavirus cases reported due to stringent social distancing measures, perhaps those same measures might mean the public response remains muted.
The perception problem may also stretch beyond Japan.
For Tokyo and the host nation, paying for the games was always in large part an investment in promoting brand Japan, setting the nation up for a future in which tourism would contribute more and more to an increasingly stagnating economy.
If the so-called “beauty shots” of Tokyo’s main hubs broadcast to the world show a city that is not shining at its Olympic finest, Japan may see its self-promotion opportunity short-changed and the long-term benefit that was pushed so hard by the likes of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lost.
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