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

A man wearing a face mask walks past the Olympic rings Dec. 1 in the Odaiba section in Tokyo. Opposition to the Tokyo Olympics is growing with calls for a cancellation as COVID-19 cases rise in Japan.

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s 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 organizers have already said another postponement is impossible, leaving cancellation — or opening 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% want the Olympics canceled 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.

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

Here’s what organizers 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 — if any are allowed to attend.

Organizers 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 organizers insisted they would happen.

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

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.”

For the Switzerland-based IOC, it’s a question of stabilizing its shaky income, 73% of which comes from selling broadcast rights. Another 18% is from sponsorships. American broadcaster NBC will pay more than $1 billion for the Tokyo rights, and its payments over a four-year Olympic cycle — including the Winter Games — account for about 40% of the IOC’s total income.

In interviews last week, IOC senior member Richard Pound said that making athletes a priority for vaccination would be “the most realistic way of it [Olympics] going ahead.” That appeared to contradict IOC President Thomas Bach, who has encouraged “all participants” to be vaccinated, but has said athletes should not be a priority. He also said vaccines aren’t required for athletes.

Pound told the Washington Post the odds were about “3-to-1” the games would take place.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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