An Olympic gamble: Japan’s decision to host Tokyo 2020


The Tokyo 2020 Olympics – one that can truly be described as like no other – began with its opening ceremony on Friday 23rd July and will continue until 8th August. Despite taking place in 2021, the Games have retained their 2020 label (as the Euros did earlier in the Summer) after being postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, with the deadly virus continuing to return in waves, the decision not to cancel the games this year is a subject of much debate and criticism.  

The dramatic postponement of the games was the first of its kind, with the having only ever been cancelled due to World Wars in 1916, 1940 and 1944. The dependability of the quadrennial Games might explain the determination to continue with the event despite Japanese Covid-19 cases peaking in May and now resurging to over 4,000 cases per day since the opening ceremony.

83% of Japanese voters thought the Tokyo should be postponed or scrapped

With Tokyo in its fourth virus-related state of emergency, it is unsurprising that 83% of Japanese voters thought the should be postponed or scrapped, and there is clearly very little excitement for the influx of around 80,000 people that comes with hosting the games. There is certainly a fear that the could become a super-spreader event, overwhelming Japan’s healthcare system with Covid-19 cases as less than 30% of its people are fully vaccinated.  

The Japanese government are consequently making huge efforts to limit the spread of the virus during the games, including strict social distancing, compulsory mask-wearing, and most significantly, the decision to not allow spectators. Whereas in of the past athletes encouraged crowds to clap along as they built to their medal attempt, the National Stadium of Japan will instead be eerily quiet – something of a familiar sight in 2021 as sports such as football, cricket and Formula 1 have had to compete without spectators. Athletes’ training will have been thorough enough to not let this throw them off – but it will certainly impact the atmosphere.

Despite these efforts to continue the Games whilst curbing the spread of Covid-19, cases are rising, with at least 91 people connected to the testing positive and a number of athletes devastated by positive tests forcing them to pull out of competing. With daily cases in Tokyo at their highest in six months, the question remains as to why Japan has insisted on going through with the games despite its threat to public health.

Japan still has billions at stake in sponsorship and broadcasting

This may be explained by the contract between the International Committee and Japan, which seemingly puts the final decision of cancellation out of the government’s hands. With the being one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar, countries put years of campaigning behind their bid to host. Despite not benefitting from what would usually be a huge draw in tourism to the host country, Japan still has billions at stake in sponsorship and broadcasting, meaning to cancel would be a huge financial risk.  

There are also political motivations behind refusing to cancel. The Beijing 2022 Winter being hosted by nearby rivals China may have somewhat pushed Japan to compete in their hospitality. Furthermore, the ‘Lost Decades’ of Japan’s economic stagnation, as well as the negative effects of tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster could be repaired by the investment and positive press that comes with the Olympics. As Prosser Anderson explains: “the Games would be seen as symbolic of a revival of Japan”. 

All these factors have combined to force the country’s hand in going forward with the  against scientific advice and public opinion – whether they will succeed in hosting a safe and enjoyable games is yet to be seen.

Image: Miki Yoshihito via Creative Commons

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