COVID-19 left the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese authorities with little choice but to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games originally planned to be kicked off last July. 11.000 Olympic athletes, 4.400 Paralympic athletes, and 80.000 unpaid volunteers were significantly affected as one of the most prestigious sporting events was forced to be postponed for the first time in the era of modern Olympics, since 1896, during peacetime. Besides efforts of organizing the events this year Covid-safely, it is an enormous push for all stakeholders, and some experts fear that the Games will turn into a global super-spreading event. Therefore, the hardships for the Olympics are far from over, even though the Games have already survived being postponed a year and coated with scandal and bad publicity. The Olympic flame is on the way to Tokyo, and the Games are set to begin, without overseas spectators, on July 23rd.
Last year the choice to postpone the games was more straightforward – the disease was new and unknown, and the whole world was shutting down before our eyes. Nevertheless, this year the options are more limited. The IOC has announced that either the games will go through or be canceled altogether. The latter would be devastating not only for Japan and the athletes but also for the worldwide spirit of beating the pandemic. According to Sone Yasunori from Keio University, “They have presented [the games] as a symbol of victory over coronavirus, so if they cancel, it becomes a symbol of the Japanese government’s failure. Both options are quite terrible.” Furthermore, the Olympics are the highlight of their career for many athletes, and complete cancellation would crush many lifelong dreams and turn years of arduous training redundant.
The public opinion in Japan has not been overly optimistic about having the Games held even this year. A survey from March revealed that only 21 percent of people favor the current plan to hold the Games without any overseas spectators. Fifteen percent of the Japanese public would let the Games run without any spectators, 17 percent favor another postponement, and a striking 32 percent believe the Olympics should be canceled instead. The COVID situation is still challenging in Japan, and the cases are slightly rising again. Only 0.2 percent of the population has currently been fully vaccinated. Therefore, it is not surprising that the general population is not excited about the Games approaching this summer. The Olympics gathers more than 11.000 athletes from some 200 countries without considering coaches, personal supporters, and media from countries with varying COVID situations and vaccination efforts.
The economic burden to organize the Games in normal times is already significant, and the economic impact tends to be less positive than anticipated. That said, the pandemic has caused the costs to surge further. The expected costs have surged from the projected $7.3 billion to an official estimate of $12.6bn, but government auditors have set the true costs at over $20bn. An additional $2.8bn is added to the total from postponement and COVID-prevention measures. But taking all these extra precautions and excluding foreign spectators still seems like a price worth paying compared to complete cancellation. Furthermore, the Japanese government had expected the Tokyo 2020 Games to bring long-lasting social, economic, and cultural benefits. However, these goals are partly not to be fulfilled without overseas spectators arriving in Japan. The term “recovery games” for the 2020 Olympics was given to demonstrate Japan’s resilience and rise from the devastating events of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. COVID-19 has turned these words around since.
The Games have suffered from other scandals that have damaged the image of the event. Former Olympics Chief Yoshiro Mori, 83, had to step down from his position in January after making comments that meetings with women take too long: “If you increase the number of women, you have to some extent limit the time for their remarks, otherwise you’ll run into trouble because it will never end.” In March, a local magazine reported that the Chief Creative Director had suggested a female comedian dress up as a pig as a play on words taking the last three letters of “Olympics”, resulting in his resignation. Overall, the organizers’ communication has left much to be desired, and misinformation about the Tokyo Games has circulated around social media.
Since the pandemic began, many other major sporting events have been canceled, postponed, or organized without spectators, from the UEFA European Football Championship 2020 to the London Marathon. However, Japan has a reference point from the same side of the globe to learn from. In Melbourne, the Australian Open tennis tournament was successfully held in February 2021 with strict COVID measures in place. One of the most outspoken ones being Novak Djokovic, many athletes heavily criticized the Australian authorities’ decision to require a 14-day hotel quarantine from some 70 players possibly being exposed to COVID-19. These rulings essentially made training and preparing for the tournament extremely challenging. Yet, the Olympics’ scale is entirely different from the Australian Open, which was visited by some 1.200 players, officials, and staff compared to more than 11.000 Olympic athletes plus other companions. The Games also include plenty of contact sports where transmissions are a far greater concern than in a tennis tournament.
There is no doubt that health and safety should always come before sports, and neither athletes nor any other stakeholders should be put in danger. However, as the decision to hold the Olympics this summer has been firmly advocated for and no further postponements will be considered, at least the reasoning behind the decision should be clear. Is the main driver to hold the games financial or perhaps political? The financial investment in the Olympics is always enormous and does not only concern the events and sports venues but a whole other level of stakeholders from television rights sales to the entire tourism industry. Japan’s prime minister Suga Yoshihide has also seen his support steadily decline among the Japanese population throughout his term and seeks ways to save his adherence.
There are still many questions around the Games, and if finally happening, they will be remembered for the extraordinary measures and efforts to make the events safe. Some sensational superstars like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps have retired since the last Games and will no longer be seen in Tokyo. Other high-profile athletes such as American track and field sprinter Allyson Felix and tennis player Serena Williams are set to arrive in Tokyo in July. The emotions and memories that Olympic sports can deliver and connect people worldwide are something many of us have missed during these challenging times. If the Games succeed in staying COVID safe, the event would be a much-needed landmark in efforts to cope with and overcome the pandemic.