As It Happens·Q&A

Japan should cancel the Olympics and focus on controlling COVID-19, says prof

If the Olympics go ahead in Japan this summer, Satoko Itani won’t be tuning in. The sports professor is among a growing chorus of residents, athletes, doctors and scientists who say the July 23 Tokyo Games need to be stopped. 

As Tokyo Games near, the country has surging cases of COVID-19 and a low vaccination rate

A masked protester holds a placard that reads 'Cancel the Tokyo Olympics' during a demonstration against the Games on May 23 in Tokyo. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

If the Olympics go ahead in Japan this summer, Satoko Itani won't be tuning in.

The professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Osaka's Kansai University says they don't want to help anyone reap even a penny profit from an event that puts Japanese people at risk.

Itani is among a growing chorus of Japanese residents, athletes, doctors and scientists who say the July 23 Tokyo Games need to be stopped.

COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Japan, where only 2.3 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Authorities on Friday extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and other parts of the country still in the grips of the pandemic. 

The Olympic Organizing Committee has released a safety playbook for the event that discourages cheering, singing and physical contact. But critics have said the 32-page document is seriously lacking in details.

Itani spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann on Friday. Here is part of their conversation. 

Professor Itani, how unusual is it to see Japanese citizens taking to the streets to protest against something like the Olympics?

There is almost like a religion-like following to the Olympics here in Japan. And this is a country [where] also many people are hesitant to go on the streets to protest. So there has been hundreds of people going on the streets to protest in Tokyo. And this might not sound like a big number compared to other anti-Olympic demonstrations in other countries. But this is a big number, especially for anti-Olympic movements.

This week, a major newspaper in Japan, [the Asahi Shimbun], called for the games to be cancelled. This paper, as I understand it, is actually a sponsor of the games. So, I mean, what impact is that having?

This came a bit too late to really have a strong impact. But this shows how the tide is changing. And if the other sponsors follow, this might stop the Olympics.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, right, attends the government task force meeting for the COVID-19 measures at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo Friday. (Yoshitaka Sugawara/Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

What are the main concerns about the Games going ahead in Tokyo right now?

The greatest concern is the COVID-19 pandemic. There [are] serious health risks and the medical scientists around the world have been opposing … this. 

Even the nurse associations here in Japan are saying that they are working at the max capacity for a year now. They are too tired and they cannot provide more volunteers just to have the Olympics.

This means that if the Olympics do happen … new strains of the virus might emerge out of this, or there could be more wide spread of the virus. And even if that number itself did not increase, the doctors or the medical resources will be taken from the Japanese public to the Olympic-related people. So this would also increase the health risks for Japanese people.

What is the Japanese government, what are Olympic organizers in Japan, saying about these concerns?

Here in Osaka, we are currently in the third state of emergency and it's been just extended to the end of June. So we are still in the middle of this. And somehow, without showing any convincing evidence or the plan, they are just saying it's going to be fine. And nobody trusts that.

Are they not giving any specifics about how they plan to test or isolate or check for vaccines — any of that?

The organizing committee [has] produced this playbook, right, for athletes, media and other [people] that are coming to Tokyo. But if you look at the playbook, these are not detailed. 

Protesters wearing masks hold signs in a line to form the words '2020 No! Olympics' during an anti-Games rally in Tokyo's Ginza district. (Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

We know how hard athletes train for these games, how much they look forward to them. It's a life highlight, of course. What about Japanese athletes? Have any of them come out to question these games?

Some of the famous athletes like [tennis player] Naomi Osaka [and] few others have spoken up and said if this Olympics will risk the lives of people in Japan, this shouldn't go on. Osaka also said that this should be discussed more in the public. But these are very international stars, and not many others.

Do you have a sense that other athletes are keen to go ahead with the games?

I can imagine the difficult … position that they are in. This is their dream and they have a strong sense of responsibility to represent the nation. But this issue is beyond the national pride or the sports event. 

I understand that one of the major issues of concern is the low rate of vaccination in Japan. Why is it taking so long for people there to get the shot?

I wish I knew the answer, because everybody's wondering that. Some of the explanations that I have heard is … during last year, when there was this … international competition to get the vaccine, the Japanese government or the Japanese diplomacy failed to acquire one. So when the first doses arrived to Japan, that was already February this year, and the number wasn't enough.

And now those pharmaceutical companies are promising that they will provide enough doses to Japan. But the rolling out plan has been very poor. The Japanese government has utterly failed to have these logistics done right. 

Naomi Osaka is one of the few Japanese athletes who has spoken out about the risks of holding the Olympics in Tokyo amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. (File/The Associated Press)

Japan has spent billions on these games. They've already been delayed a year. That has to be costly. What are the potential economic losses if these games do get cancelled?

This has already resulted in tremendous economic damage. So I think we ... lose something when we are just looking at how much money we will lose by just cancelling. The fact that we haven't cancelled already and really focused on controlling the pandemic has done more damage than cancelling now [would].

A senior IOC official, Richard Pound, who's a Canadian, has said that the IOC has until the end of June. That's their deadline for deciding whether to cancel or go ahead. Does that provide you some kind of comfort that they can pull out at the end?

I don't know why they cannot cancel now or … earlier, because the longer it goes on, the more resources will be divided and the more public attention will have to go into the Olympics instead of really focus[ing] on taking care of our own selves. 

Media attention is also all going to the Olympics…. There are so many other issues happening economically, politically, and we cannot talk about it because the Olympics has been taking all this attention.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


  • An earlier version of this story used incorrect pronouns to refer to Satoko Itani.
    Jun 01, 2021 12:21 PM ET

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