By Stephen Wade
The Tokyo Olympics, already delayed by the pandemic, are not looking like much fun: Not for athletes. Not for fans. And not for the Japanese public. They are caught between concerns about the coronavirus at a time when few are vaccinated on one side and politicians who hope to save face by holding the games and the International Olympic Committee with billions of dollars on the line on the other.
Japan is famous for running on consensus. But the decision to proceed with the Olympics — and this week to permit some fans, if only locals — has shredded it.
“We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not,” Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee and a bronze medalist in judo in 1988, wrote in a recent editorial published by the Kyodo news agency. “The IOC also seems to think that public opinion in Japan is not important.”
Support for going ahead seems to be increasing, but there's persistent opposition with small street protests planned on Wednesday, one month before the July 23 opening. Much of that concern stems from qualms about the health risks. While the number of new cases has been receding in Tokyo, only about 7% of Japanese are fully vaccinated — and even though the government is now supercharging its vaccine drive after a slow start, the vast majority of the population still won't be immunized when the games start.
That's left the IOC and the Japanese government going through contortions to pulls this off. Dr. Shigeru Omi, the government's top COVID-19 adviser, called it "abnormal" to hold the world's biggest sports event during a pandemic. He also said the safest Olympics would be with no fans.
He was overruled on both counts by the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and organizers.
The official cost of the Tokyo Olympics is $15.4 billion, but government audits suggest it’s twice that. All but $6.7 billion is public money. The IOC chips in only about $1.5 billion to the overall cost.
The pressure to hold the games is largely financial for the Switzerland-based IOC, a nonprofit but highly commercial body that earns 91% of its income from broadcast rights and sponsorship. Estimates suggest a cancelation could cost it $3 billion to $4 billion in broadcast rights income.
Beyond financial concerns, putting on a successful Olympics is also a major source of pride for the host country. Some economists compare it to throwing a big party. You overspend but hope your guests go away bragging about the hospitality.
“It’s a bit like a gambler who already has lost too much,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Pulling out of it now will only confirm the huge losses made, but carrying on you can still cling to the hope of winning big and taking it all back.”
Before the postponement 15 months ago, Japan was on track to host a well-run if expensive Olympics. It had a beautiful new National Stadium by architect Kengo Kuma, meticulous organization, and a grand stage for a country that mounted historic games in 1964 — just 19 years after defeat in World War II. IOC President Thomas Bach called Tokyo the “best prepared Olympics ever” — and he still says it repeatedly.
But now, worries that the games will be become an incubator for the virus hang over them. For now, the rolling averages of deaths and cases have stabilized in a country that has reported more than 14,000 deaths — good by global standards but worse than many of its Asian neighbors.
While the games may still end up wowing television audiences who will tune in around the world, the pandemic has removed any sense of celebration. Athletes are meant to stay in the village or venues. Most others entering Japan for the Olympics can only shuttle between their hotels and venues for the first 14 days, must sign a pledge of follow the rules, and could have their movements monitored by GPS.
There will be no public viewing areas in Tokyo. The few fans who can attend venues must wear masks, social distance, refrain from cheering, and go straight home afterward. No stopping off at the local izakaya for beer and skewers of grilled chicken.
With spectators from overseas ruled out months ago, there’s little business for hotels. Local sponsors have paid more than $3 billion to be involved, and some have complained about lost advertising possibilities. Others have expressed concern about being tied to an event that’s unpopular at home.
In perhaps a last-ditch effort to save some of the festive spirit, organizers said Tuesday they were looking into selling alcohol at the venues.
Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa indicated financial concerns were at play: Japanese brewer Asahi is one of the sponsors and has kicked millions into the local operating budget.
But after immediate pushback, organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto reversed the decision at a Wednesday news conference.
“We decided as Tokyo 2020 not to sell alcoholic beverages and to ban drinking alcoholic beverages in the venues,” she said.
And athletes who might want a drink to celebrate have been told by organizers to “drink alone" in their rooms.
Alcohol is otherwise banned in the athletes' village.
This village will also have a fever clinic, the first stop for anyone who fails a daily test — and the last place anyone wants to go.
“We are hoping that there won’t be so many people,” Dr. Tetsuya Miyamoto said, director of medical services for Tokyo 2020. “This is an infectious disease we are talking about. It has the possibility of spreading. So once that happens, the numbers could start to explode."
Details of the opening ceremony are always kept a secret. But this time the questions aren't about which celebrity will light the cauldron but rather will athletes social distance and wear masks as they march through the venue? And how many will march at all?
One of the symbols of the celebratory atmosphere of the Olympics has long been its notorious policy of handing out condoms. At the games in Rio de Janeiro, officials distributed 450,000 through vending machines with signs that read, “Celebrate with a Condom.”
This time there will be 150,000 — but only given to athletes as they leave for home.
Associated Press writer Kantaro Komiya contributed to this report.