To Be or Not to Be? Revisiting the question of Tokyo’s Olympics

May 13, 2021

Three months ago (19 February), I wrote of the “Troubled Games of the XXXll Olympiad” in the context of the dual crises facing Japan: continuing, unresolved radiation emanating from the 2011 Fukushima quake/tsunami/meltdown on the one hand and the COVID 19 public health crisis on the other. The Games was supposed to represent their resolution, leading the world into a new era of recovery, hope and peace, but as the event itself approahes, both remain unresolved. Here I focus solely on the Olympics (and Paralympics).

As of mid-May the Games might or might not go ahead, but the louder the official protestations that they will proceed as planned, commencing 23 July, the more the suspicion grows that actually they will not.

Pandemic, emergency status continues in much, though not all, of Japan. For the second time in a little over a year, the Golden Week of extended spring holidays (29 April to 9 May) coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the country under a quasi-closure for the duration of the country’s third “State of Emergency,” from 25 April to 11 May (subsequently extended to 31 May). Restaurants, bars, department stores and places of entertainment in major cities closed and people were urged to stay home. The Torch Relay, launched on 25 March from Fukushima and designed to spread Olympic excitement and anticipation,  continued through May and June despite for the most part being banned from use of public roads and forced to downgrade or cancel its commercial convoy of sponsor promotional vehicles (headed by Coca Cola).

With less than three months to the actual Games opening, fewer than 1 per cent of Japan’s people have been fully vaccinated (less than two per cent partially) and since the government has no plan to require vaccination as condition of entry into the country the virus is virtually guaranteed admission in July along with the 15,000 anticipated athletes and officials.

As of early May, 3.25 million people around the world had died from COVID. Japan itself was recording roughly 5,000 daily cases (for a cumulative total of 620,000), and had suffered over 10,000 deaths. The US continued to suffer daily over 50,000 infections (and eight hundred deaths). India and Brazil were both recording infections at  rate of 300,000 to 400,000 daily, with a death rate of 4,000 and 2,000 respectively. Furthermore, the numbers of infected are almost certainly much higher than those reported.

Foreign spectators having already been banned, the option of forbidding all spectators remains on the table. The thought of torch-bearers being escorted uner police guard through empty streets must have struck organizers as so absurd that in some cities at least (Okinawa for one) each torch-bearer was given the right to nominate four guest spectators. Otherwise, ordinary people were to be excluded. However, since shouting, cheering, applauding, singing (but not, so far at least, laughing or crying) are all banned it was not clear how they would be permitted to express themselves.

Ruling Liberal-Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General, Nikai Toshihro, in a perhaps unguarded moment in early April, said that cancelation was an option if the virus was not by then under control (“If the situation becomes more difficult we’ll have to completely cancel.”)

Once in Tokyo, athletes will be tested regularly, perhaps daily as the Olympics minister has suggested, and will be subject to strict control and supervision to ensure they are always masked and go nowhere from their hotel save to the stadium of their event. With public opposition to the conduct of the Games running still at over 70 per cent, and athletes themselves subjected to such stringent policing, resentments are bound to flare. So far only North Korea has formally withdrawn, but several countries are reported to be wavering and it would take little to cause collapse.

Speaking as an athlete, Japan’s designated 10,000 meter women’s Olympic contestant, Niiya Hitomi, spoke for many when she said that it would be ‘utterly meaningless “ for the Games to be conducted with the public excluded. Japan has yet to find a formula to resolve the contradiction between the promise of grand spectacle gathering masses of people and  the pandemic imperative of social distancing and the “three avoidances.”

All Japan’s efforts to date to cope with the virus having failed, the likelihood of an Olympic COVID outbreak is high. Some thought that as the Games approached opposition would melt away and the pandemic be brought under control. But that has not happened. Even after massive government promotion efforts, April’s Kyodo opinion survey found more than 70 per cent of people in favour of either immediate cancelation or further, indefinite, postponement.

Taking it for granted that the Games would function as a virus spreader, organizers are setting up an emergency medical squad, including 500 nurses and 200 sports specialist doctors, with hundreds of hotel rooms set aside in readiness for athletes testing positive. Should athletes or officials of any one country become infected with COVID, those from all countries with whom they have been in contact, however casual or short-lived, would be moved to isolation.

The toxicity and infectivity of the virus appears to have been steadily intensifying as it evolved through “British,” “South African,” “Indian,” or “Brazilian” variants, threatening now an Olympic viral wave that could swamp Japan’s health system. Representation of the Games as “Beacon of Hope” and “Symbol of Recovery” (from Fukushima and COVID) is increasingly seen as a bad joke. One critic (Shirai Satoshi in Ronza on 1 April) writes of “popular sentiment on the Games changing from concern and questioning to loathing.”

As for cost, when Japan first sought, and then was awarded them, the Games were to be “compact,” with an initial budget estimate of 700 million yen (ca $6.3 billion).  but that figure in due course doubled and then quadrupled, reaching 2.7 trillion yen (around 30 billion) and, if ancillary costs such as those borne by Tokyo metropolis are included, 3.5 trillion yen ($32 billion). For rough comparison, Sydney’s 2000 Games cost around $6.5 billion, Athens in 2004 a little under $11 billion, London in 2012 $14.8 billion. With Japan’s hospitals today stretched to, and beyond, breaking point, the prioritising of the Olympics over public health is widely seen as indefensible.

Yet, irrespective of such rumbles of discontent and of the cost in public health or financial terms, the Government of Japan seems determined that the Games will be held. Like the grand Berlin ceremonies scripted by Hitler’s promotional team for the 1936 Berlin  Games (forerunner in particular of today’s Sacred Flame procession), one has to look beyond the background of farcical frippery, flag-waving and Coca Cola promotion to the  underlying message, then of rising Nazism, now of rising Suga (Abe-Suga) militarism and control. If even now the Games were to commit to the values of Olympic Founder, Baron de Coubertin, as incorporated in the organization’s Charter, flags, anthems, or other symbols of state, together with commercial promotions (such as featured prominently in the Torch Relay), would all be banned. And, if beyond that the Olympic movement was to orient itself in accord with the values of peace and democracy it proclaims, the Games themselves would be cancelled forthwith, since that is, and has long been, the clear wish of a majority of the Japanese people.

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