Money, politics and split opinion in Japan on 'grand gift' of Tokyo Olympics

A pandemic-adjusted Olympic Games is coming to Tokyo in less than two weeks amid a state of emergency and sustained opposition from those who fear the potential public health consequences of what's to come.

Summer Games set to go ahead despite pandemic, sustained domestic pushback

The Tokyo Olympics will get underway in less than two weeks under a state of emergency in Japan's capital and amid opposition from those who fear the potential public health consequences of hosting the international event during a pandemic. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

An illustration shared on social media shows International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach wearing a face mask and cheerfully waving, while the accompanying text conveys the message that people in Japan don't necessarily want to reciprocate.

"We can't wave back — meaning we're pretty depressed, it's a bit of an emergency," said Hyung-Gu Lynn, a professor in the Asian studies department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He describes an ambivalent mood in Japan, addressed in a recent meme, ahead of the pending Olympics.

The pandemic-adjusted Tokyo Games get underway on July 23 under a state of emergency in the capital and amid opposition from those who fear the potential public health consequences of what's to come.

Experts say the momentum to move forward is powered by the billions of dollars already spent to stage the summer spectacle — a tangled knot of politics and obligations — as well as the confidence that Japan can successfully manage any coronavirus risks while putting on an Olympic show.

That's not to say the public feels the same urgency to go ahead with the Games, which were supposed to be held last year.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach waves to the media from a vehicle after landing in Tokyo on Thursday. He's self-isolating at a five-star hotel. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

"I think the public attitude is one of irritation or resignation, I would have to say," said Lynn, citing polls that have shown a majority of Japanese being opposed to the Games.

"There are some people who say: 'Why not?'"

There are also those who continue to actively protest against the Games, like the 40 or so people who gathered Saturday outside the five-star hotel where the IOC president is self-isolating.

"He seems not to have thought anything about our critical situation and suffering, which makes me more angry," protester Ayako Yoshida said.

Worth the money?

On paper, the Tokyo Games have an official cost of $15.4 billion US, though audits suggest it's substantially higher than that.

The money has been spent and a new national stadium has been built, even though there will be a lack of sports fans filling the seats of Tokyo-area Olympic facilities — as well as those as in the prefectures of Hokkaido and Fukushima — due to COVID-19 concerns.

A security guard stands outside the National Stadium in Tokyo on Thursday. There will be a lack of spectators filling the seats of Tokyo-area Olympic facilities. (Shinji Kita/Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

"The big thing is the money," said Hannah Holmes, an assistant economics professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"Will they ever get that money back out of it? Arguably, they're not going to now because of the lack of fans being able to attend."

But it's not just the size of the investment; it's what Japan is getting for it — or not getting for it, according to some Olympics watchers.

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Robert Dekle, an economics professor at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, said there are many in Japan who simply "don't see the benefit of it."

These critics question why Japan is having the Olympics at all. Dekle said that was true for some even before COVID-19  arrived.

With less than two weeks to go before the Games, Japan is seeing a climb in COVID-19 cases, with health officials reporting 950 new infections on Saturday — the highest count in about two months and the 21st day in a row that infections were higher than the week previous.

Less than one-fifth, or 16.8 per cent, of the population is fully vaccinated. About 15,000 deaths in Japan have been attributed to COVID-19.

To limit the risk of any spread during the Games, the thousands of visiting athletes are expected to stay in their Olympic accommodations or venues, following strict guidelines contained in a rulebook

The politics

Japan won the bid for the Games eight years ago, at a time when Shinzo Abe led the government.

He stepped down last year over health concerns and was succeeded by Yoshihide Suga. Hyung-Gu Lynn of UBC said there is pressure on the current prime minister to deliver what Abe had promised.

"The Olympics are supposed to be former prime minister Abe's departing grand gift to the country," he said. "So Suga is simply implementing the plan ... set by his predecessor."

A protester holds a sign urging a stop to the pending Summer Games outside a venue in Tokyo on Friday. Just 16.8 per cent of the population in Japan is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Naoki Ogura/Reuters)

Beyond that, Lynn said that Suga has an opportunity to build support within his party for his continued leadership, if the Games are a success.

Of course, the International Olympic Committee has a clear interest in seeing the Games through.

Broadcast rights and sponsorships are key to the IOC's operations, with some estimates suggesting a cancelled Olympics could cost billions in lost revenues.

"You can't neglect the push from the IOC to persevere," Holmes of McMaster University said, noting that broadcast rights are "pretty much their only revenue" given the lack of spectators in the stands this year.

The potential payoff

Dekle of USC believes Japan is well equipped to deliver the Olympics despite the challenges.

"My sense is that it'll turn out more positive than the people of Japan think," said Dekle, who expects Japan will reap a PR boost by pulling off a successful Games.

A couple pose in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo's Nihonbashi district on Saturday. The official cost of the Summer Games is $15.4 billion US, though audits suggest it's substantially higher than that. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

Vijay Setlur, a marketing instructor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, said it will be a win for Japan if there are no major problems at the Games.

"If they're able to maintain a healthy Olympics where no athletes contract the virus and ... no volunteers or workers do the same, then I think that would be considered a success," he said.

With files from The Associated Press