Battling opposition and 4th COVID wave, Tokyo forges ahead with Olympics

Besieged by growing opposition and a fourth wave of COVID-19, Japan is determined to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympic Games next month.

Public opinion in Japan is tilting heavily against the Games, scheduled to kick off in less than 50 days

A man walks past the Olympic rings in Tokyo on Monday. Despite a year-long delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Summer Games are scheduled to open in the Japanese capital on July 23. (Koji Sasahara/The Associated Press)

With the starting line approaching, Japan is suited up for its Summer Games. 

Olympic rings are stenciled on skyscrapers, draped on lampposts and defiantly planted in the middle of Tokyo Bay — seemingly declaring no pandemic will stand in the way: Tokyo 2020 will happen in '21, one year after its delay due to the coronavirus crisis.

Last week, medals, mascots and podiums were unveiled in Tokyo with rousing fanfare — the soundtrack of a certain spectacle set to soon envelop the Japanese capital.

The president of the Tokyo organizing committee, Seiko Hashimoto, insisted these Olympics must be held "so we can contribute to the regrowth of people's connections, which were divided by COVID."

The trouble is people's connections are still divided in Japan — and public opinion is tilting heavily against the Games.

"It is simply beyond reason to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer," read a recent editorial in Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading newspapers.

Protesters march around Tokyo's National Stadium during an anti-Olympics protest last month. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Some of the country's medical experts are also frustrated at what they see as missed opportunities to create a safe atmosphere before the commitment to move forward was made.

"We had scientific evidence and we knew what should have been done" to hold the Olympics safely, said Kenji Shibuya, a former chief of health policy and senior adviser to the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) who is now helping run Japan's vaccination program in Fukushima. "I'm very disappointed that all of that was not done.

"We had knowledge about how to mitigate risks, how to avoid transmission, and we knew that vaccination is very, very effective — but we haven't seen it," he said in a Skype interview with CBC News.

For all the pomp and preparations, Japan is struggling to pull out of a fourth wave of infections. A state of emergency was expanded to areas around Tokyo and eight other cities, and then extended until at least June 20 — about a month ahead of opening ceremonies scheduled for July 23. In the hardest hit region around Osaka, hospitals are struggling to keep up.

Slow rollout of vaccines

Japan has fared better than many other parts of the world, though, recording more than 760,000 COVID-19 cases and 13,600 deaths since the pandemic started, based on tracking by Johns Hopkins University. But one-fifth of those deaths came in the past month.

Meanwhile, vaccination efforts in the country have lagged far behind other G7 countries, with Japan either fully or partially vaccinating around 11 per cent of its population. That compares nearly 60 per cent in the U.K. and 62 in Canada. 

"From the bottom of my heart, I ask for everyone's understanding and co-operation," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said two weeks ago, announcing it was too early to end the state of emergency. He then dodged questions about whether the Games should go ahead under the circumstances, simply saying that "infection control measures" would be in place to protect both athletes and the public.

Under those measures, foreign spectators have been banned from attending the Games. And though Japanese fans have been given tickets, it's possible the stands will be kept empty. 

Athletes, media and visiting officials will also be largely confined to limited Olympic sites in what could be the loneliest Olympics ever. Canadian athletes are preparing for that.

The Olympic rings are displayed by the Odaiba Marine Park Olympic venue in Tokyo. Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto has stated she is 100 per cent certain that the Olympics will go ahead despite widespread public opposition in Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Cancelling the Games could cost the Japanese government and corporate sponsors at least an estimated $22.3 billion US. Some in Japan worry their country could also lose face.

"We raised our hand as a country to host the Games," Irisawa Susumu told CBC News on his way home from work. "We have a responsibility to create a good environment for the athletes to come to."

But the fear of widespread infection remains in Tokyo. The head of the Japan Doctors Union has voiced concern that a new mutant strain of COVID — an "Olympic variant" — could emerge this summer, warning that such a large gathering of people from so many different places has not yet occurred since the emergence of the virus.

Some 10,000 out of 80,000 volunteers who signed up to help at the Games have quit.

"I think there are a lot of people wondering why they are going to such lengths [to hold the Games]," Tokyo resident Ryuto Kobayashi told CBC News.

"So many strains are coming out now and they're scary," said Masai Takuma. "And after all, life is more precious than the Olympics. It would be better to cancel."

WATCH | Why thousands of volunteers have quit over safety concerns at Tokyo Olympics:

Tokyo 2020 volunteer speaks out as thousands of others quit ahead of Olympics

1 year ago
Duration 7:15
Barbara Holthus says her fellow volunteers at the Tokyo Olympics have serious safety concerns with less than 50 days to go until the Games begin. More than 13,000 Tokyo 2020 volunteers have now quit.

Athletes already arriving

One poll last month showed 83 per cent of respondents felt the same way when asked if the Olympics should be further postponed or scrapped altogether. An online petition demanding that the Games be cancelled "to protect our lives" has collected more than 420,000 signatures.

Beyond the risks of COVID, the man leading the petition says it's "outrageous" that Tokyo is spending so much money on the Games when it hasn't given its citizens and small businesses enough to survive through the past year.

"The Olympics must be cancelled, and these precious resources must be used to support people who are struggling with poverty because of the pandemic," Kenji Utsunomiya told CBC News.

WATCH | Athletes gear up for Summer Games:

Athletes prepare for unprecedented Olympics

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
With less than two months out until the Tokyo Summer Games, athletes are in the home stretch-- vying for COVID-19 vaccinations during the last legs of their training.

With just weeks to go, it may be too late.

At its executive board meeting this week, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach declared "here we go," before setting off for Tokyo's starting ceremonies. The IOC has said it's confident Japan can keep the Games safe.

Olympic competitors have also begun arriving in Japan. The Australian women's softball team was among the first to land last week — prepared for "lots and lots of COVID testing," said player Jade Wall.

And after almost three months of criss-crossing Japan, the Olympic flame is nearing its final destination of the opening ceremonies. The torch relay has struggled under the protocols of COVID — fewer people and more masks — as well as vocal protests by opponents of the Olympics. 

Still, at this stage, it doesn't seem like anyone is about to snuff out these Games.

A torchbearer passes along the Olympic torch relay route in Sakata, Japan. As the Olympic torch relay makes its way around the country, much of the original route has been altered or cancelled completely as prefectural authorities act to avoid large gatherings during a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases. (Carl Court/Getty Images)


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.


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