Argument

Tokyo Wants the Olympics to Happen Even if the Public Doesn’t

The Japanese government is locked into what critics call a misguided project.

The National Stadium, the main venue for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games
A man walks past Olympic Rings in front of the National Stadium, the main venue for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo on Jan. 8. Behrouz Mehri/AFP

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, rescheduled for this July and August but still keeping the 2020 name, will be a landmark event that demonstrates the best of Japan and helps the world celebrate as it turns the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic. Or it will be a costly and unnecessary event that most people in the country want to be canceled and that will needlessly put thousands of athletes and spectators at risk of falling victim to a resurgent coronavirus. As if the world didn’t have enough to argue about already.

Officially, there is no doubt that the games will proceed this summer, the Olympics on July 23 and the Paralympics on Aug. 24. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in his New Year’s message that the games “symbolize the unity of the world” and that “we will advance our preparations thoroughly so as to achieve games that are safe and secure.” He remained confident even as he reluctantly imposed a new state of emergency for Tokyo on Jan. 7 as cases there spiked, even though the numbers remain small compared to Europe and North America. Under pressure from regional leaders, he added seven more prefectures on Jan. 15, covering about half of the country’s population. By international standards, the measures remain uniquely mild. People are encouraged to avoid needless trips, business are urged to let people work from home, and restaurants and bars are asked to close by 8 p.m.

Another keen supporter of the games has been Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who sees the chance for the games to highlight her city at a time when it is seeking to win back some of its former glory as a regional hub for companies in Asia. With Hong Kong’s appeal diminishing after Chinese crackdowns and Singapore getting too expensive even for foreigners, the Tokyo metropolitan government has launched a marketing program, particularly aimed at high-tech and fintech firms. The Olympics and Paralympics are a chance to show off its wares. Plans for the games range from use of fuel-cell buses to transport spectators (assuming there are some) to making the city carbon neutral, at least for the days of the opening and closing ceremonies—an early test of the much more difficult government goal of making Japan carbon neutral by 2050. Koike also likes to highlight that all of the 5,000 medals for the games were produced through urban mining from millions of donated mobile phones, personal computers, and other high-tech junk from around the country.

Japanese corporate sponsors have, predictably, fallen in line to support the effort. All 68 domestic sponsors have agreed to stay on and to put in an additional $210 million in sponsorship fees. The group includes many of Japan’s major corporate giants, including the nation’s two biggest airlines and other travel-related firms that were hard-hit by the pandemic.

Koike and other government officials also see a bit of nostalgia in all this. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics are still talked about today as a turning point for the nation, a chance to show the world both how Japan had recovered from the devastation of World War II in less than two decades and how it had also reformed from an aggressive empire-seeker to a model of peace and democracy. Aside from the direct spending on the stadiums and other facilities needed for the games, the government went on a broader spending spree that included the first stage of the Shinkansen bullet train network, which remains a point of national pride. The democratic and economic revival of 1964 was made all the sharper since the country had originally been supposed to host the 1940 Olympics, which would have had a very different tone.

Less remembered is the fact that much of the postwar construction proved less than durable. Most of it has been torn down, and Tokyo’s hurriedly thrown-together expressway network has had to be updated piecemeal to meet anything close to modern standards. Also seldom discussed is the fact that the athletes of the time had to deal with some of the most polluted air to be found in any major city as industry and growth took priority over the environment.

This time around, there is no shortage of critics of the games going ahead as planned. Political commentator Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan, said that the idea of proceeding with the games was “crazy.” Writing in the Washington Post, Kingston said “There are troubling signs that the Olympics could become the superspreader event of all superspreader events.” He noted that the vaccination program for Japan is still in the early planning stages, with vaccinations not even due to begin until March, leaving a small window before the games. In addition, vaccinations will not be mandatory for athletes. There is also the ethical question of offering vaccines to healthy young people when the elderly and others at risk in many poorer countries will likely still be waiting for their chance.

He is not alone in his criticism. A Jan. 10 poll by the national news agency Kyodo found that only 14 percent of those surveyed thought the Olympics should go ahead as planned. It found that 35 percent wanted the games canceled, while 45 percent called for a further postponement.

Delaying the event does not appear to be an option, however, given the complexities of slotting in one of the world’s biggest sporting events into the global calendar, along with the issues of keeping the venues ready to go for an even longer period and telling the athletes that they have to train up for an even longer period. The head of the Tokyo Games Organizing Committee, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, said on Jan. 12 that another delay was impossible. “I think we will have to make a very difficult decision from February to March,” he said at a news conference.

An apparent lack of public support is not a new issue for the Tokyo Games. From the beginning, low public support was seen as a barrier to Tokyo’s original bid back in 2013, with polls showing less enthusiasm than in other candidate cities. Even then, polling showed that just 47 percent of Tokyoites were supportive, while a July 2020 survey found a support rate of 24 percent. The negative views come amid overall dissatisfaction with how the government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases rose again in the winter, even though Japan has fared well compared with other major countries. The total number of cases throughout the pandemic is now 300,000 nationwide, about the same as in the U.S. state of Iowa, while the number of deaths per million residents from COVID-19 is less than 3 percent of the U.S. figure.

Another issue raised by the critics is the ever-rising price tag for the games. In its original bid, Japan had pitched a “compact games” at a cost of $7.3 billion, down sharply from the London 2012 Games, which cost about $15 billion. With the delays and other issues, the Tokyo Organizing Committee now put the total outlays at $15.4 billion, while other estimates say the true figure is much higher. A comprehensive audit by the government’s Board of Audit said in 2018 that the total projected costs were closer to $26 billion. The Tokyo organizers say that number included extraneous costs that are not part of their budget.

Organizers also say they are looking to cut costs by focusing on the athletes and the sporting events rather than all of the hoopla that have become a part of the Olympics. Tokyo Games Organizing Committee head Mori has said that the games could go ahead without spectators. He noted that this has become the norm through the sports world over the past year and that he expected a final decision on the issue from the government by May.

A cut-down games might also be a harbinger for the future and at least a partial answer to those who say that the world will soon run out of cities that can bear the hefty financial and social burden of the Olympics. “The Tokyo 2020 Games will also be a new model for the Games of the future,” said Mikako Kotani, a former Olympic medalist who is now sports director for the Games, in charge of coordination with the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee. “I think COVID-19 will open the door to a new era for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” she said in a news release.

The cost figures are now also just a drop in the bucket for a country that has been printing money for years, even before a coronavirus-induced jump in outlays. Borrowing by the national government this fiscal year is expected to total around $1.08 trillion, more than double the previous record high in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, a move that will further cement Japan’s leadership as the most indebted government in the world at some 230 percent of annual GDP.

With these numbers, the extra costs for holding the Olympics become a rounding error. In addition, forfeiting the games would leave the world’s next global sporting event to the 2022 Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing. In the realm of Asian rivalry, that is a baton-passing that Japan would not want to see, and a few billion dollars is a small price to pay.

But the final fate of the games probably does not rest with Japan after all. The decision to delay the Olympics last March came only after some national sports federations had made clear they would not attend. Even a partial boycott of the games for health reasons could again change the calculus—and result in another ditched Tokyo Games.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

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