Mon | Jan 25, 2021

To cancel or not?: IOC, Japan press ahead with Tokyo Games

Published:Thursday | January 14, 2021 | 12:08 AM
A man wearing a protective face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks with the Olympic rings in the background in the Odaiba section in Tokyo.
A man wearing a protective face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks with the Olympic rings in the background in the Odaiba section in Tokyo.


Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a State of Emergency last week for Tokyo and surrounding areas. Amid the surging virus, he again promised the postponed Tokyo Olympics would be “safe and secure” and tried to disconnect the State of Emergency from the fate of the Games.

But opposition to the Olympics is growing with calls mounting for a cancellation. The International Olympic Committee and local organisers have already said another postponement is impossible, leaving cancellation – or opening on July 23 – as the only options.

Two polls published in the last few days by the Japanese news agency Kyodo and Japanese broadcaster TBS show that just over 80 per cent want the Olympics cancelled or postponed, or believe they will not take place. The negative responses are up 15 to 20 percentage points from polls published just last month.

“The Japanese public are already more and more inclined to oppose the hosting of the Olympics this summer, and the State of Emergency reinforces the perception that it is a lost cause,” Koichi Nakano, who teaches politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University, said in an email to The Associated Press.

As a fearful public asks to call off the Tokyo Games, it faces the reality of Olympic finances, geopolitics, and face-saving.

Japanese taxpayers have sunk billions into the Olympics, the IOC lives off the television money and has seen its income stalled by the postponement, and China is waiting in the wings to hold the Beijing Winter Games in 13 months if Japan stumbles.

“Japan’s standing in Asia and in the world matters a great deal, particularly in view of its rivalry with China,” Nakano said. “It would be a nightmare for them (Japan’s political leadership) if Japan fails to be the host of the first ‘post-COVID’ Olympics and the title goes to China.”

Nakano said the government wanted to avoid the emergency order, which could be extended beyond February 7 and to other parts of the country. This could further embolden sceptics and imperil the Games.

Organisers have promised strict “anti-virus” measures to pull off the Olympics. Here’s what they face – vaccine or no vaccine.

They must bring 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, from more than 200 nations and territories, safely into Tokyo and still protect Japanese citizens. Add to this, tens of thousands of judges, coaches, officials, VIPs, sponsors, volunteers, media and broadcasters. And hundreds of thousands of fans – perhaps some from abroad – if any are allowed to attend.


Organisers have speculated about myriad measures to counter the virus, but firm answers probably must come by March 25 when the torch relay with 10,000 runners begins crisscrossing Japan, headed to Tokyo and the opening ceremony.

It was also in late March last year when the Olympics were postponed after organisers insisted they would happen.

For Japan, hosting the Olympics has to do with justifying at least US$25 billion in “sunk costs,” satisfying domestic sponsors who have pumped a record of US$3.5 billion into the Games driven by giant ad agency Dentsu, and gaining in the geopolitical contest with neighbouring China.

For the Switzerland-based IOC, it’s a question of stabilising its shaky income, 73 per cent of which comes from selling broadcast rights – getting the Olympics on television. Another 18 per cent is from sponsorships.