With the coronavirus pandemic spiraling around the world, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are unlikely to go ahead as planned. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe all but threw in the towel at a news conference this week. He and various Olympic officials have repeatedly insisted that the Games will be held as planned in July and August, but this time he left the timing up in the air, suggesting he is resigned to a postponement. Then, on Thursday, NHK television broadcast Diet deliberations where Abe was pointedly questioned about exactly when the Games would be held, and again dodged the issue. Some 70 percent of Japanese already doubt the Games will proceed on schedule, and nearly two-thirds believe they should be postponed.
It’s time for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Abe to bite the bullet. It’s better to plan for a deferral now than delay the inevitable.
The Games were supposed to be the crowning glory for Abe. He surely was not pleased when President Trump suggested a one-year postponement and a Japanese Olympic official mentioned a two-year delay earlier this month, but border by border, lockdown by lockdown, it has become clear that proceeding is risky. Trump’s abrupt imposition of travel restrictions, after weeks of nonchalance, has essentially sealed the fate of Tokyo 2020, disrupting preparations, athletes’ training and qualifying events around the globe.
Now, the IOC is faced with pulling the plug and figuring out when to reschedule. It should do so sooner than later to give all involved more time to prepare. There are many trade-offs and interlocking parts, but 2021 or 2022 are workable options.
Cancellation would be the nightmare scenario for Abe and Olympic sponsors; delay at least offers hope, something currently in short supply. It might also boost sagging consumer confidence, encourage a rebound of inbound tourism and help Japan climb out of a gathering recession. And there is the estimated nearly $30 billion already spent on gearing up for the Games and several billion dollars more in sponsorship at stake.
Some suggest an Olympics without spectators, but this is an unlikely and unappealing scenario; watching the ongoing sumo tournament in an empty Osaka arena underscores the importance of fans. There are still hopes to hold the Games later this year, but holding the “Mask Olympics” either in summer or later in 2020 is fraught with moral hazard and a range of uncertainties that can’t be managed. And American television already has a full schedule of fall sporting events. Cluttering that schedule with the Olympics would reduce viewership and the anticipated ad revenue. Moreover, athletes’ training has been disrupted and it remains unclear if all of them will able to travel later this year.
The Games have been canceled before, during wartime. Gaffe-prone Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso vented this week about the 40-year curse, noting the boycott in of the Olympics held in the Soviet Union in 1980 and cancellation of the 1940 Olympics, when Tokyo was supposed to host them for the first time.
Of course, there are bigger worries for the world to address right now, health and jobs foremost. Still, as Yale anthropologist William Kelly reminds us, the Games are much more than spectacle and sports. In an article published this month, he explained how the Olympic movement has promoted positive changes in global conversations, norms and values involving diversity, gender and the environment. As this crisis continues, this spirit will be needed more than ever to move beyond the blame game and nurture more effective transnational cooperation.
That means that a deferral is the least bad option — for the IOC, the athletes, Abe and Japan.
Even if the Olympics are postponed, it might not spell an end to Abe’s leadership. He has weathered numerous scandals involving cronyism, doctored data and document tampering, so he appears to be the Teflon premier. To some extent, Japanese voters have become inured to such shenanigans. Will Abe’s dithering and botched response to the coronavirus exact a political cost? Not yet. The most recent Kyodo poll indicates that Abe’s support rate has rebounded to almost 50 percent, up nearly nine points from February, in yet another remarkable turnaround for Japan’s Houdini.
In times of trouble people seek stable leadership, flaws and all, and Abe has proved resilient amid policy miscues and flip-flops. Moreover, many Japanese look at President Trump’s high-profile bungling and realize things could be far worse. But as the global economy tanks and the Japanese public begins to feel the pain, a powerful backlash could threaten Abe’s leadership and tarnish his legacy. With discontent brewing and hope receding, this time he may not be able to dance away from the abyss — even if the Games eventually proceed.
Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan, is the author of “Japan.”