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Anti-Olympics demonstration in Tokyo
Opposition to hosting the Olympics is significant in host city TokyoImage: Viola Kam/ZUMA Wire/imago images

COVID-19 and the Olympic Games: Little enthusiasm in Japan

Stefan Nestler
May 19, 2021

Normally, enthusiasm in the host country of the Olympics can be expected to rise steadily as the world's biggest sporting event draws closer. Not so in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Japanese public has made it clear it is opposed to hosting the Olympic Games in a recently released poll. Just two months before the Summer Olympics are to be held, an opinion poll conducted by the Kyodo news agency found around 60% of people favored canceling the Games outright. A month ago, that figure stood at just 40%. Not just that, but nearly 90% of those asked in the latest poll expressed concern that athletes and support staff from abroad could bring COVID-19 into the country.

Resistance to the Games is also more active; a petition to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) calling for the cancellation of the Games "to protect our lives and well-being" gathered more than 370,000 signatures within a week. A medical association representing 6,000 Tokyo physicians called on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to lobby the IOC to cancel the Olympics, arguing that hospitals had their "hands full with the corona pandemic and almost no extra capacity." 

Japan has found itself in the grip of a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in recent weeks. As a result, Tokyo has been placed in a state of emergency, which doesn't expire until the end of the month. While restaurants and bars are open, they have to close by 8 p.m., and the public is being urged to stay home. 

Unwelcome headache  

The Suga government is in hot water, too, with 70% of those who responded to the most recent Kyodo survey disapproving of how he has handled the pandemic. Among the complaints are that the vaccination campaign started far too late and is not progressing quickly enough. 

This also comes at a time when Suga is up for reelection, with Japanese voters set to go to the polls in October at the latest. With the prime minister's Liberal Democratic Party having lost all three of last month's by-elections, Suga appears unlikely to call an election before the Games. Suga's thinking may well be that if the Olympics go ahead with few hitches, this could help revive his political fortunes.

Yoshihide Suga
Under pressure: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide SugaImage: Sadayuki Goto/AP/picture alliance

Olympic bubble

The Tokyo Organizing Committee is planning to hold the Games from July 23 to August 8 in an "Olympic bubble." Approximately 11,000 athletes are to be tested daily for COVID-19, keep their distance from others, and move around as little as possible outside the competition venues. Foreign spectators are to be largely excluded.

The Organizing Committee is to decide next month whether there will be even a handful of spectators allowed into the stands. The Japanese athletes competing at the Games are to be vaccinated from the beginning of next month, while the IOC is working on the assumption that most athletes traveling to Tokyo from around the world in July will have been vaccinated. 

With just two months to go before the start of the Olympics, excitement would normally be building. So what does the IOC make of the fact that this is not the case in Japan? 

"The Olympic community all over the globe is with Japan and is thinking of the Japanese people who are affected by the pandemic," the organization said in a statement in response to a DW query. "It is only because of the ability of the Japanese people to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible."

Whether this will convince the many skeptics in the host city and nation is another question entirely. 

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