It’s kind of a tradition for protesters from host countries of the Olympic Games to oppose the spectacle that is coming to town. But in just days, the Tokyo Games will almost certainly be held despite months of unprecedented dissent from Japanese doctors, public health experts and most of its citizens.
Part of the reason is that a previous increase in Covid-19 cases has since eased and public opposition has waned. As of mid-May, there were on average more than 900 new cases per day in Tokyo; that number has since fallen to less than 400 a day – although cases in the city have started to rise again this week.
Recent polls suggest the public mood has mellowed, a turnaround from polls a few months ago showing that 60 to 80 percent of the Japanese public wanted the games canceled or postponed.
Some international epidemiologists continue to support voices of concern in Japan. They wonder if it is wise to host the world’s largest sporting event in a country that recently suffered two huge waves of coronavirus infections – while also inviting tens of thousands of athletes, officials and journalists from 206 participating countries.
The International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials are adamant that from July 23 they can host the games not only safely, but successfully. Critics wonder if organizers have prioritized sport over public health – or if they want to avoid the huge financial losses from the cancellation.
“There are too many stakes here, both financially and in terms of reputation, to suggest that the IOC or Tokyo would ever have favored the cancellation of the games,” said Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, who wrote several books on Olympics finances. .
On the other hand, he said, “the IOC does not want to be in a situation where it completely ignores the ramifications of public health.”
(NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, paid $ 7.5 billion to extend its media rights to the US Olympics until 2032. NBCUniversal is the International Olympic Committee’s largest source of revenue. NBC Sports Group n did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Olympic strain of the virus”
In March 2020, with the pandemic shutting down much of daily life, it seemed inevitable that the games would be postponed for a year. The organizers were hoping that in 12 months things would be a little more normal.
In fact, Japan has been hit by two waves this year that eclipsed everything it suffered in 2020. Its number was lower than that of the United States, but its peak of 6,500 daily cases put hospitals at strained and far exceeded the norm for East Asia.
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Poll after poll, there is fierce opposition to games. On May 17 this year, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said 83% of Japanese people were in favor of the postponement or cancellation.
Doctors have spoken publicly, fearing the event could spread cases and strike their already struggling hospitals. A district of Tokyo posted signs in its windows: “Medical capacity has reached its limits. Stop the Olympics! and “Give us a break. The Olympics are impossible!”
Others feared it would create new variants that would then be seeded around the world when the athletes returned home. Dr Naoto Ueyama, head of the Union of Physicians of Japan, said he was concerned that a “Tokyo Olympic strain of the virus” would attract criticism “for 100 years.”
Sports stars kept their heads down. But Japan’s most famous athlete, tennis player Naomi Osaka, admitted last month that the debate “made people very uncomfortable.”
‘Except Armageddon’ – let’s go
The IOC and Japanese officials have stood firm, although in reality only the IOC has the legal authority to disconnect. Senior IOC member Richard Pound told the Evening Standard newspaper last month that the matches would take place “except Armageddon”.
Delaying again would have meant rushing through the busy 2022 schedule, between China’s Winter Olympics and Qatar’s FIFA World Cup.
In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said she believed the public was coming to the idea that the games would be safe.
“At one point, people were a little worried about the safety of the games,” she said. “But now, with all the communication,” she added, “people are starting to believe our message, and I think it creates an atmosphere of peace of mind for game safety.”
Other officials have hinted at tensions with the IOC.
Former judo medalist Kaori Yamaguchi, now a member of Japan’s organizing committee, said earlier this month that the IOC “seems to think public opinion in Japan is not important.”
“We have already missed the opportunity to cancel,” she wrote for the Kyodo news agency. “We’ve been stuck in a situation where we can’t even stop now. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”
Meanwhile, Asahi Shimbun, an official Olympic partner, published an editorial last month urging Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga “to calmly and objectively assess the situation” and to call off the games.
In an attempt to allay these concerns, the organizers significantly reduced the event.
International fans are prohibited. Officials and other guests have been reduced from 180,000 to less than 80,000 and must abide by strict rules, including staying in a bubble around their hotels and places.
On Monday, organizers announced that up to 10,000 spectators will be allowed at each event, but cheering will not be allowed. Events such as the 100-meter final, usually so dependent on atmosphere and anticipation, will take place in relative silence.
Allowing spectators to go against the advice of the government expert panel. They favor games without crowds, with senior medical adviser Shigeru Omi warning at a press conference last week that the likelihood of a rebound in post-game cases was “very high”.
Omi and his colleagues initially advised the government to consider the possibility of canceling the games. But after Suga garnered support from world leaders at the Group of Seven summit earlier this month, Omi said he realized that was no longer an option.
So far, cases have fallen well below their May peak and several polls have suggested that the opposition is weakening. A poll by broadcaster Fuji Television on June 20 found that only 30% of people wanted the event to be canceled – although it is not clear whether this is a real change in mood or just resignation to the idea that the games will take place.
Organizers hope their case will be bolstered by a vaccine deal between the IOC and Pfizer-BioNTech that aims to vaccinate most of the Olympic Village. Critics say this could mean visitors would get vaccinated before some local health workers and vulnerable groups.
“It is only thanks to the ability of the Japanese people to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible,” the IOC said in an emailed statement. “The entire Olympic community around the world stands with the Japanese people in a spirit of perseverance, for the spirit of perseverance is also the Olympic spirit.”
“Safety is the main concern”
The cancellation would have ended the dreams of thousands of athletes who sacrificed years of their lives.
“The final decision of the IOC will be very difficult,” said Alexandre Miguel Mestre, sports lawyer at the Portuguese firm Abreu Advogados, who wrote the book “The Law of the Olympic Games”. He said the IOC must balance “the dreams and rights of athletes to participate in the games and, on the other hand, the need to protect their health”.
But many believe there is another underlying factor: money.
To refuse gambling would upset a delicate web of agreements and financial relationships.
The not-for-profit IOC’s multibillion-dollar budget is funded 70% by the sale of broadcast rights and most of the rest by advertising.
NBCUniversal chief executive Jeff Shell told Credit Suisse’s virtual communications conference last week that it could be the most profitable Olympics in NBC history.
“I lived in London. Everyone was worried about the traffic. And the last time was Zika, and then once the opening ceremony comes, everyone just forgets about it and enjoys the 17 days. And I think it’s going to be the same, “he said, according to a Reuters report on the event.
As well as wiping out a summer of TV programming, with an estimated global audience of $ 3 billion, it would also torpedo years of planning for smaller sponsors and suppliers.
Japan itself has already exceeded its budget by $ 7.5 billion and spent around $ 15.4 billion so far. Leading economists and the Japanese government’s own watchdog say the real cost will exceed $ 20 billion.
An outright cancellation would have resulted in an increase of an additional $ 16 billion, according to a study by former Bank of Japan board member Takahide Kiuchi, now executive economist at consultancy firm Nomura Research Institute. This is because, in addition to the money it has already spent on the games, Japan would have lost the expected income during the event.
Money is therefore a factor – but probably not the only one, according to experts.
“It would be naive to think that financial considerations don’t play a role, but I think security is the overriding concern,” said Leon Farr, senior partner at Onside Law, an international sports law firm at London.
“I really don’t believe the IOC would insist that the Japanese continue to host the event if they thought it was dangerous – it’s just not in the best interests of the IOC,” said Farr. “If all went wrong, the IOC would be exposed to exactly these kinds of allegations: that they put financial considerations first.”
Reuters contributed to this report.