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Will Japan be ready to host delayed Olympics?

July 2, 2020

With the postponed Games due to open on July 23, 2021, many people question whether coronavirus pandemic will have been brought under control. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

A 3D printed Olympics logo is seen in front of displayed  "Tokyo 2021"  words in this illustration taken March 24, 2020
Image: Reuters/D. Ruvic

A senior official spearheading preparations for Tokyo to host the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympics next summer has confirmed that a final decision on whether the event can go ahead could be delayed until early June of 2021, sparking renewed suggestions that the Games will ultimately be cancelled.

The International Olympic Committee and the local organizers announced on March 24 that the Games were being delayed for one year as a result of the novel coronavirus sweeping the world, but efforts to bring the pandemic under control have failed and a vaccine has yet to be developed. Even if an effective vaccine is formulated, critics point out, it is unlikely to be available in sufficient quantities for all the athletes, officials and hundreds of thousands of spectators from Japan and around the world.

Toshiaki Endo, who heads the organizing committee for the Games, on Wednesday updated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on progress a little more than a year ahead of the scheduled opening ceremony for the Olympics, saying that the assumption remains that the Games will go ahead as planned from July 23, 2021.

Read more: Tokyo 2020 postponement poses Herculean financial challenge

Significantly, however, he handed the prime minister a resolution emphasizing that the host nation has the responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of all those involved in the Games and requesting that the government set up virus testing facilities and protocols so that the event can go ahead safely.

Residents concerned

But many residents of Tokyo do not believe that guaranteeing the health of anyone associated with the Games is possible.

"Everything depends on how a ‘second wave' of cases develops, of course, but from everything that I have seen in the last week or so it does not look very optimistic," said Koichi Ishiyama, a retired professor who lives in Tokyo.

"Yesterday there were 67 cases in a single day and it looks like the total today is going to be above 100, so we are definitely seeing another surge that has come back since they lifted the state of emergency for Tokyo on May 25,"he told DW. "And that really worries me."

Read more: Coronavirus: Uptick in Japan infections triggers second wave fears

Ishiyama's worries are echoed by a majority of residents of Tokyo who responded to a poll conducted by Kyodo News and published on Monday. Some 51.7% of residents of the capital said the Games should be postponed again from 2021 or cancelled outright. Slightly more than 46% said the Olympics should go ahead as scheduled. Of those opposed to the Games being held next year, fully 27.7% said they should be scrapped entirely.

"It's not just a matter of public health and safety," said Ishiyama. "Preparations for the Games and building of the different venues cost the city – and us taxpayers – billions of yen and now they are saying that delaying them will cost millions more."

High cost of hosting Olympics

Estimates at the amount that Japan has spent on the Games before they were cancelled were as high as $25.2 billion (€22.30 billion), while postponing the event could cost a further $5.8 billion (€5.13 billion). Writing the Games off entirely would incur losses estimated at $41.5 (€36.73) billion.

Read more: Tokyo Olympics 2020: Who pays if coronavirus forces cancellation?

"Honestly, I think that Japanese people are more and more losing their enthusiasm for the Olympics and it's the same for sponsors who are withdrawing their support or not renewing their deals for next year," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

"Right now, people have too many things to worry about – jobs, schools being closed, having enough money to support themselves and, of course, catching the coronavirus – than to think about the Olympics," he told DW.

"In the circumstances, the best we can hope for is that the situation does improve over the next 10 months or so and we can then make a decision on whether to go ahead or not, but I would have to say that my feeling is that it's going to be very difficult," he added.

Read more: Japan's social influencers find ways to get around coronavirus crisis

Games without spectators?

According to the World Health Organization, there have been nearly 10.2 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of June 30, and more than 503,000 deaths. And while infection rates are declining in many countries, there are several major nations – such as the US, India and Brazil – where numbers are bucking that trend.

Japan has reported 18,723 cases and 974 fatalities, but health officials were already warning of an increase in cases linked to Tokyo's nightlife districts and a number of significant clusters appearing in other parts of the country.

Organizers have already made broad suggestions that the Games might be scaled back in some way and that measures will be taken to ensure the safety of all those taking part, with one proposal being that the events take place without spectators. The authorities are keen to avoid that particular scenario, but they might find that people do not buy tickets to the rearranged Games out of concern that they might be infected.

For Ishiyama, who is 73 years old, health is the biggest priority.

"What would happen if they did go ahead with the Games and one or two people who did not know they had the virus came and then infected thousands of people in the stadiums?" he asked. "Who would take responsibility for a disaster like that? It's dangerous and irresponsible to go ahead with the Games."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea