An Olympics That the Host City Doesn’t Want

By Kohei Usuda

Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr

“We must bring the Olympics back to Japan,” Tsunekazu Takeda, the former head of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), vowed ten years ago. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced a new policy in 2019 that recommends future host city candidates to hold public referendums to gain the endorsement of local residents prior to submitting official bids, Tokyoites were never consulted on the JOC’s decision to campaign for the hosting rights of the 2020 Summer Games. 

Now, amid a pandemic, the people of the world’s largest metropolis are saddled with an Olympics that the majority do not want. A poll by the Kyodo news agency a month out from the Olympics found that as much as 86 percent of Japanese are fearful of a potential spike in coronavirus cases that may occur as a result of staging the sporting extravaganza. 

Their worst fears might be on course to become a reality, as the host city registered its highest-ever recorded number of daily infections on Day Four of the Games, with 2,848 cases of the coronavirus reported on Tuesday. 

How did it come to such an outcome? Voice Up Japan analyzes what led to this predicament.

A deeply unpopular Olympics

On March 23 of last year, at the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Donald Trump took to Twitter to proclaim that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s then Prime Minister, “will make the proper decision” regarding the fate of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which was slated to take place last summer but had been cast into doubt in light of the deadly virus sweeping across the world. Within hours of President Trump’s tweet, the Japanese leader, already facing mounting pressure from the international community to call for a postponement, finally announced that he has requested the IOC to “consider delaying the Games for about a year” due to risks posed by the widening scope of the epidemic.

More than a year on, as the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 has finally got underway, things have now come full circle. Many parts of the globe are still scrambling to stem the tide of the coronavirus and its more transmissible variants, while the skeptical Japanese public remains more weary than ever of the possibility of the Games triggering a massive surge in coronavirus cases. 

To reassure the nation, Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s successor, has repeatedly pledged to deliver a “safe and secure” Olympics, a claim also reiterated by Thomas Bach, the IOC president, following their bilateral meeting last month in advance of the opening ceremony.

For Japan’s general public, whose borders have been closed since early last year as part of counter-Covid measures, their chief concern has always been the potential risk presented by the influx of tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, officials, and journalists attending the 16-day quadrennial – many of whom are from coronavirus hotspots. A perfect storm, from a medical and public health standpoint, for the Olympics to turn into a superspreader event that critics warn would put further strain on the host city’s health care system. 

Since the Olympics kicked off on July 23, the number of daily cases has shot up at an alarming rate, topping 4,000 on Saturday. In addition, as many as 259 cases of Covid infections linked to the Olympics have been confirmed as of Sunday. The Tokyo area remains under a Covid-induced state of emergency since July 12, while the country’s drive to vaccinate its citizens has also faced widespread criticism for its lackluster pace, with only about 20 percent of its population fully inoculated so far. 

To understand just how unpopular the Olympics are perceived among the locals, one needs only to look at the survey conducted in May by the Asahi Shimbun. Most of those polled responded either in favor of outright cancellation (43%) or another postponement (40%), with only 14 percent of respondents believing that the Games should go ahead as planned.

Added to this the fact that Dr. Shigeru Omi, the Suga administration’s own top coronavirus advisor, openly defied the government line by echoing the indignation of many Japanese. In what amounts to be a damning indictment of the government’s handling of the situation, Dr. Omi, often referred to as “Japan’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci,” publicly raised the alarm in early June by stating that, “It’s not normal to hold the Olympic Games in a situation like this.” In a remark that won the public’s approval, the medical advisor added in blunt terms: “It’s only when there is a clear reason to host the games that the public will get on board … it’s very important for those involved in the Olympics to clarify their vision and the reason for hosting the games.”

The intricacies of Japan’s Olympic opposition

Even before the coronavirus became headline-grabbing news, some Tokyoites had long harbored reservations – often expressed in private – about their city staging the 2020 Olympics to begin with. And for a variety of reasons, from its ballooning costs totaling an estimated $25 billion to bribery allegations leveled against Takeda, the former JOC chief who was forced to step down from his post for allegedly signing off on paying off an influential IOC official for the benefit of Tokyo’s bid. 

Although local resistance to Tokyo 2020 has shown signs of renewed vigor in recent weeks, in a consensus-seeking society like Japan, those who actually take to the streets to protest represent only a tiny segment of the population. The act of freely expressing dissenting views that do not readily conform to the official line is often frowned upon, making it harder for people to make their voice heard and effect change.

Despite numerous controversies surrounding the Tokyo Games, according to Sonja Ganseforth, a researcher at the German Institute for Japanese Studies who has conducted fieldwork on the subject, Japan’s “anti-Olympic movement” is a small-scale phenomenon. Her study published last year reveals that there are just two known, “loosely” coalesced, grassroots groups dedicated to anti-Olympic activism, with only about 20 to 40 members among their ranks, most of whom are veterans of left-wing student activism of the 1970s.

The growing trend of Olympic “referendums”

To be sure, it is true that public support among the Japanese in favor of Tokyo’s bid reached a high of 70 percent in the run-up to the Japanese capital being awarded the hosting rights for the 2020 Summer Games, according to a survey carried out by the IOC in the spring of 2013. 

Still, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, prior to Tokyo joining the race in 2011 to campaign for the 2020 Games, the capital’s 14 million inhabitants were never allowed to publicly weigh in on the matter by means of direct vote. And this in spite of the fact that it is increasingly becoming the norm, at least in recent years, for candidate cities to hold a citywide referendum to gauge the level of public support, and to give the bidding process a democratic legitimacy.

Among several municipalities to follow this trend in the past decade – a growing list of which includes Oslo (2013), Vienna (2013), Krakow (2014), Hamburg (2015), among others – is the much-publicized case of Calgary in the western Canadian province of Alberta. In 2018, the city of Calgary enfranchised its constituents to cast a “yes” or “no” vote in a bid to determine whether the city should stage its second-ever Winter Olympics since 1988. In the end, the majority of Calgarians (56%) rejected the proposal by voting for the “no” side. 

The CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, attributed Calgary voters’ rejection of the bid to a combination of factors including “the unpleasant baggage weighing down the Olympic movement,” such as concerns over billions in taxpayer money that would be poured into “a two-week party that leaves little long-term positive economic impact” on the local population.

Though the plebiscite was non-binding, the results effectively squashed the city’s mooted candidacy for the 2026 Winter Games. “I’m disappointed with the outcome, but I certainly respect the democratic process,” Scott Hutcheson, chair of Calgary’s 2026 bid, was quoted as saying by The Calgary Herald.

In the wake of this public relations debacle, the IOC unveiled an about-face proposal in the following year that aims to improve the bidding process. 

As of June 2019, the IOC is belatedly mandating that future candidate cities hold public votes before lodging their official bids. “We cannot, I suggest, continue to be damaged as we have in the past,” John Coates, a high-ranking IOC official tasked with the reform, explained the rationale behind the change during an IOC session held two years ago, according to the Associated Press.

Had such a referendum taken place in Tokyo ahead of this summer – to ascertain whether pushing ahead with the Games under a global pandemic would really be in everyone’s interest – would it have resulted in this present fiasco where the public needs convincing to “get on board” the so-called Olympic Movement? After all, it is millions of Tokyoites who are the real “stakeholders” here as hosts, any more than the vested interests of IOC officials or their multinational corporate “partners” are.

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