Japanese athletes being drawn into expanding battle over Tokyo Olympics

The Japanese government, Tokyo organizing committee and sponsors are on one side with the political power and money behind them defending the event, while the anti-Olympics contingent is on the other with a grassroots campaign that is trying to marshal its forces on social media to stop the extravaganza.

Olympic opponents continue call for cancellation of event scheduled to begin July 23

People take part in a protest against the Tokyo Olympics on May 17. (Getty Images)

TOKYO — With the countdown to the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics nearing the two-month mark, opposing factions of the Games are digging in for the final push.

The Japanese government, Tokyo organizing committee and sponsors are on one side with the political power and money behind them defending the event, scheduled to open July 23, while the anti-Olympics contingent is on the other with a grassroots campaign that is trying to marshal its forces on social media to stop the extravaganza.

The crux of the issue is the safety of holding the competition in the face of the ongoing pandemic. With more than 10,000 athletes, coaches and staff expected to enter Japan shortly, a majority of the public remains uncomfortable with this prospect, believing it could lead to a larger spread of COVID-19. Recent surveys in Japan have shown that anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent of those polled are against holding the Olympics this summer.

Fanning the flames of the dispute are media outlets outside of Japan casting doubt on the viability of holding the Games. What has developed recently is a reality-distortion field with the use of terms such as "lockdown" and "state of emergency" being bandied about incorrectly.

The situation in Tokyo is much different than it is generally being portrayed outside of Japan. Cases have risen recently, but they remain much lower than they were earlier this year.

In early January, Tokyo went through a stretch with an average of more than 2,000 new cases a day, prompting an emergency to be declared. But the capital city — at 38 million people the largest in the world — is now averaging fewer than 1,000 new infections per day. Canada by comparison, with a national population similar to Tokyo's, registered nearly 5,000 new cases on May 16.

Japanese Atsushi Yamamoto competes in the men's long jump T12 during a recent athletics test event for Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Games at National Stadium in Tokyo. (Associated Press)

Business as usual

The truth is that Japan has never had a lockdown, and a state of emergency here is much different than what has been seen in other countries the past 18 months. The current "emergency" in Tokyo is in place until the end of May. Besides asking restaurants and bars to close by 8 p.m. and not serve alcohol, life here is fairly normal.

Schools and sports clubs are open, commuter trains are packed in the mornings and evenings, with people moving around as they usually do, albeit with masks on. Coffee shops are filled with customers chatting and going about their days. Many are even working remotely from these locations.

A total of 10 of the country's 47 prefectures were in some state of emergency as of May 16, but the railways and airports are operating as if it is business as usual.

The impact of the reports overseas about the Olympics have resulted in prominent Japanese athletes like Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka, who both have not lived in Japan for many years, wondering if it will be safe to hold the Games.

What is often not included in the reporting is that many of those coming to Japan for the Olympics will be vaccinated before arriving, and all will be required to enter Japan with proof of a negative test, must take another test at the airport, and will be tested frequently while they are in the country.

None of that seems to matter when more sensational story lines can be floated. One only needs to look back at past Olympics for reference. Ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi it was fears of terrorism. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Games it was worries about North Korea. In both cases, nothing materialized.

It seems that everybody in the Olympic scenario has an agenda, with some appearing more dubious than others.

Rakuten chairman Hiroshi Mikitani took a shot at Olympic organizers in an interview last week with CNN, equating holding the games this summer with a "suicide mission."

The Tokyo 2020 media office was quick to point out Monday that Rakuten, an e-commerce and online retailing company, is one of the few prominent Japanese businesses not sponsoring the Games.

Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, who is recently recovered from treatment for leukemia, was a featured star at an event last July 23 to mark what would have been the start of the Tokyo Olympics had there not been a postponement. (Getty Images)

Star swimmer Ikee singled out

Matters took a turn recently when anti-Olympics campaigners singled out star swimmer Rikako Ikee on social media and pressured her to join their cause and give up her bid to compete.

The approach seemed especially nasty considering Ikee returned to competition only a few months ago after battling leukemia. She was diagnosed in February 2019 and had planned to forgo the Olympics in her hometown to recover. But the year-long postponement brought by the global pandemic bizarrely presented her the opportunity and Ikee is positioned to be one of the inspirational stories this summer.

In a Twitter message posted on May 7, Ikee wrote: "I think it is unavoidable and only to be expected that there are many people calling for a cancellation of the Olympics given the novel coronavirus pandemic. Even if the Olympics are not held, I spend every day concerned about the risk of infection since I have a pre-existing medical condition. Even if people ask me to state my opposition, there is nothing I can do to change the situation."

Yuriko Komiyama, who works in Tokyo, is one of many people bothered about the attempt to influence Ikee.

"I feel very disappointed about that (Ikee)," Komiyama said. "People should not put that kind of pressure on athletes. I really hope Ikee-san can concentrate on her performance in swimming."

Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto defended Ikee and other athletes at a press conference on May 12.

"With regards to athletes and individuals, there is slander and defamation in SNS messaging," Hashimoto said. "A lot of burden and a lot of anxiety is being imposed on the athletes. When we see this, it pains our heart. 

"The athletes should not be criticized for this. [It is] the president of the organization that should be the target of this criticism. Perhaps there is a perception on our part that we are not being detailed enough in our explanation."

Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, speaks to media at a news conference on May 12. (Associated Press)

Slow pace of vaccinations

A request for comment from anti-Olympics group Hangorin No Kai about the targeting of athletes on social media was not responded to.

At the same press conference, Hashimoto also noted that the Olympic sponsors remain resolute about holding the Games. 

"When I became president of the organizing committee, I went directly to the sponsors to greet them," Hashimoto said. "I heard from them directly. The partner companies welcomed me. They had a very favourable position regarding the Games which were postponed. Further support was expressed by them."

Contributing to the anxiety over holding the Olympics is Japan's incredibly slow pace of vaccinations for COVID-19. At this point less than two per cent of the country's 125 million people have been vaccinated.

Veteran sportswriter Jim Armstrong, a Toronto native who has lived in Japan for 35 years, thinks the Japanese government has not helped itself at all.

"I just keep thinking of how much stress could have been avoided if the Japanese government got its act together on the vaccines," Armstrong said. "They had almost a year to figure it out. They must have known there would be massive concern and resentment among a population not vaccinated. The incompetence is just stunning.

"I feel sorry for the athletes. It's not their fault. Anyone who pressures or otherwise criticizes an athlete over this is an idiot."

WATCH | Bring it In panel: How much will COVID-19 affect Olympics?

100 days from Tokyo: How much will Covid-19 affect the Olympics?

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Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss what precautions should be taken for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to stay on track.

Adding to the overall intrigue is the recent development of 45 cities in Japan cancelling their commitment to be the hosts of pre-Olympic training camps.

Ed Odeven, who has worked in Japan as a sports writer for 15 years, cited the vaccine rollout and camp cancellations as being particularly problematic for Olympic organizers.

"The fact that numerous municipalities have dissociated themselves with the Olympics and Paralympics compounds the image problem of a nation light years behind others in vaccinating its citizens. Or having a robust plan already implemented in all facets," Odeven said. "This, too, presents a picture of a nation in disarray without any real plan at the federal level."

The impact of the pandemic in Japan, which has had approximately 11,500 deaths, has been far less than many other places in the world.

"It's true the number of cases and deaths have been much lower here than in other countries, but the cases have been rising across the country and not in isolated areas," Odeven said.

With the Japanese government expecting to end up spending nearly $30 billion on the Olympics. Odeven thinks the pressure to hold the Games in 2021 has backfired.

"The totality of the chaos caused by rushing to reschedule by one year should not be overlooked," Odeven said. "It is an important point. Olympic and Japan-based leaders failed to handle matters in a smart, sensible way last year and have bluffed their way many steps of the way since."

Tokyo resident Julia Morioka said the conflicting viewpoints about staging the Olympics and information about vaccines are leading to bewilderment amongst the general public.

"Many people are trying to justify their words and actions now," Morioka said. "People are confused about what is right. They are believing in false information. It's all because of the unreliable government and the media manipulating information."


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