Summer Sports·VIEW FROM TOKYO

Ready or not, the Tokyo Olympics will happen in 1 month

With one month to go until the delayed Tokyo Olympics begin, the reality that the event is going to happen is starting to take hold in the capital city.

'The window for cancelling the Games has closed,' says author Robert Whiting

The countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is displayed 30 days before the opening ceremony, outside a Tokyo station. (Charly Triballeau/Getty Images)

With one month to go until the delayed Tokyo Olympics begin, the reality that the event is going to happen is starting to take hold in the capital city.

Against what seemed almost insurmountable odds — a pandemic, low public support, and a year delay — Japan will host its second Summer Games and first in 57 years.

Banners and flags with the Tokyo 2020 logo can be seen throughout the city at various places. Earlier this month traffic began being rerouted around the new Olympic Stadium, the centrepiece for the competition that will run from July 23 to Aug. 8. The torch relay is proceeding around the country on its journey to Tokyo.

As the countdown to the lighting of the Olympic flame continues, the residents of the largest metropolis in the world are recognizing that the handwriting is on the wall. With the Japanese government, International Olympic Committee and major stakeholders all standing firm in their resolve to hold the Games, the anti-Olympics faction, which has kept "No Olympics" trending on Twitter for months here, has been defeated.

With the Japanese government on the hook for an estimated $30 billion US to stage the Olympics, despite all of the protestations over costs, virus numbers, and sensational media stories, it seems clear that there was never any serious consideration to cancelling the Olympics.

Author Robert Whiting, an expert on Japan, who wrote a book in Japanese on his time in the country entitled Two Olympics, recognizes that it is now too late to call off the Games.

"The train has left the station. The window for cancelling the Games has closed," Whiting remarked. "Unless countries start dropping out when the fifth wave hits, we are going to have the Games."

The image that has been pushed by both domestic and foreign media is that a large number of athletes, coaches and officials are going to descend on Japan and contribute to increasing virus numbers with their presence and movements.

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Extraordinary precautions

What Olympic organizers here could have done better is to educate the public and media on the extraordinary precautions that have been put in place for the Games. Those travelling to Japan for the Olympics will have to be tested before they get on the plane, as soon as they land, and again frequently during the competition.

If they test positive for the virus, they will immediately be placed into quarantine. They won't be running around Tokyo. World Athletics president Sebastian Coe acknowledged that the campaign to inform the public has fallen short.

"I think it is really important in the lead-up to the Games — and it probably, if we're being honest, should have been done earlier — that there needs to be a far greater recognition of the work that has been undertaken," Coe said earlier this month at the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations General Assembly.

"I cannot in my lifetime think of another event of any kind that has had so much forethought put in to the safety of all those involved," Coe stated. "Yet I, like many of my colleagues, am spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the media making the point that these Games can be delivered safely."

Coe thinks there should have been more proactive work done to inform Tokyo residents about just what they were in for this summer.

"We must get this message across that these are not 10,000 athletes all descending on a city without forethought or a plan, and the systems in place are there not just to protect athletes but their communities," Coe commented. "That would go some way to at least making some of the research polling that we wake up to each morning a little more benign."

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe believes more work should have been done to inform Tokyo residents about the safeguards put in place to protect athletes and communities ahead of the Olympics. (Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

The slow rollout of vaccines for COVID-19 has also contributed significantly to public discomfort with holding the Olympics. But the tide is starting to turn in that respect, with terrestrial TV stations in Tokyo, which have been fanning the flames by hyping the virus numbers for almost 18 months, now running graphics showing the per cent of people who have been vaccinated.

The numbers are still very low, between five to 10 per cent, but last week both Tokyo and Osaka began mass vaccinations of residents between the ages of 18-64, after first prioritizing those over 65 and people with pre-existing conditions, which should quicken pace in the coming weeks.

Whiting attributes the glacial pace of vaccinations in Japan to bureaucracy and culture.

"Getting the approval of everyone involved in the different government offices for the new vaccines, following bureaucratic rules and regulations, not wanting to leave anyone out and risk offending someone are reasons," Whiting says.

"Pleasing the big pharmaceutical companies who donate to [the ruling] LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] and don't want to be left out of sharing in the revenue the government spends to buy the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and/or want to develop their own vaccine," Whiting continued.

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Long-standing rules stymied vaccine rollout

The author of the recent book Tokyo Junkie noted that long-standing rules have also stymied the vaccine rollout.

"Laws limiting those who are allowed to administer injections to doctors and nurses [are also responsible]," Whiting stated. "In the U.S., you go to Walgreens and get a shot administered by an employee who is neither one. The government has loosened laws, added dentists to the list of those eligible to give the shots.

"But the bureaucracy of Japan just serves to slow things down," Whiting said. "Nobody has authority to cut through the red tape the way [U.S. President Donald] Trump did in the U.S. when pushing to develop a vaccine."

While the understanding that the Olympics are going to happen is now front and centre, that doesn't take away from the fact that any buzz ahead of the Games has been muffled by the various obstacles in the way.

Michael Plastow, a translator who has lived in Japan for 40 years, provided his assessment of the present climate toward the Olympics.

"I think the opposition is now equalled by the fatalism and there is a general acceptance that it is too late to stop it now," Plastow stated. "The attention, therefore, seems to be turning faintly towards the medal prospects and question of whether spectators will be allowed in. But as for enthusiasm, I see and hear none."

Plastow believes that there will be long-term damage to the Olympic movement over the holding of the second Tokyo Olympics.

"This is going to be a party without festivities, and the whole financial and publicity debacle will surely further reduce the already declining motivation of countries all over the world to bid for the Olympics ever again," Plastow commented. "The IOC has won the battle but is serving up damaged goods. The IOC and Japanese government are anyhow banking on everything going well or well enough on the COVID side and being able to justify their decisions with the benefit of hindsight. I expect they'll get away with it."

Weather another issue

The weather is another issue that will almost certainly play a factor in the competition, featuring 206 nations and 11,000 athletes vying for 339 gold medals. The IOC moved the marathon and race-walking events to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido back in late 2019 due to safety concerns about the intense heat of the Tokyo summer.

The thermometer has climbed near 30 C here on several days already in June, which indicates that the coming weeks could be filled with both heat and humidity that drives residents of the Kanto plain to flee to cooler climes every August.

The IOC and Tokyo Olympics organizers announced Monday that 10,000 spectators would be allowed at events provided that figure does not exceed 50 per cent of venue capacity. The move could help turn the tide of public sentiment in the coming weeks.

With Japanese fans having a chance to attend a rare home Olympics in person, and support both their athletes and others from around the world, the anticipation and euphoria that often comes with being part of something unique could be pivotal in changing perceptions.

"The IOC will fully support your decision, and will fully contribute to making these Games as safe and secure for the Japanese people and for all participants," IOC president Thomas Bach said following the announcement in an online meeting.

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Emi Watanabe, a television personality and former figure skater who represented Japan in two Winter Olympics (1976, 1980), knows this will be a different kind of competition for the athletes.

"COVID has changed everything. Mentally it is hard enough to perform to a top-notch level with a full crowd and the cameras rolling at you from every direction," Watanabe stated. "Now the events won't have as many spectators. The athletes will have to think positively and make the best out of this COVID-19 Olympics."

Watanabe is still hopeful that her country can host an event to remember.

"I will be crossing my fingers that these Games will be a big success."

Tokyo resident Julia Morioka feels people will eventually embrace the Games.

"I think we will enjoy it once the Olympics start," Morioka remarked.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo.

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