Why does Japan insist on holding the Olympics?

People walk past a countdown clock for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games outside Tokyo railway station on Dec. 16. (Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)
People walk past a countdown clock for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games outside Tokyo railway station on Dec. 16. (Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)

Holding the postponed 2020 Olympics next July — as Japan appears determined to do — is crazy. Kudos to Michael Phelps for stating the obvious: “The fact that you’re going to put ten thousand plus athletes, plus all the volunteers, plus all the coaches, it doesn’t make sense to me. I just don’t see how it can happen.” This peerless Olympian also said he was astonished officials waited so long to delay the Games earlier this year as the pandemic swept across the globe.

There are troubling signs that the Olympics could become the superspreader event of all superspreader events. Vaccines are not a solution as they won’t be available in Japan until sometime between March and May 2021, leaving a narrow window for a national vaccination campaign. The government will pay for inoculations, but the logistical challenges are enormous. Moreover, one-third of Japanese oppose being inoculated despite a blitz of favorable PR for the vaccines and a worrying third wave in Japan.

Japan has recorded just over 2,700 covid-19 deaths. That’s not a big number, but 10 percent of this total died in the first two weeks of December alone and the number of cases is surging alarmingly across the nation. There are about 600 serious cases, but public health experts warn that the nation’s health-care system is already on the verge of being overwhelmed. Recently, Osaka had to plead for more nurses from the military and around the nation to mitigate grave staffing shortages. The trends are ominous, and public health experts are deeply worried.

Nobody really knows if the pandemic will be contained seven months from now, so bringing tens of thousands of people from all over the world to densely packed Tokyo (population 13 million) seems like an awfully big gamble. What could possibly go wrong? For one thing, the International Olympic Committee says that vaccinations will not be mandatory for competitors. There is also the ethical dilemma of inoculating athletes from poorer nations while their compatriots face a long wait.

And how can we have confidence in the mandatory two-week quarantine for all visitors if Tokyo can’t even keep newly arrived visitors off public transport? Fingers are crossed but just think back nine months ago and remember how fast things can go wrong and the unexpected becomes reality.

Given all the uncertainties generated by the pandemic, why wish the risk away? There is the feel-good factor of a global post-covid-19 coming-out party where everyone can shrug off the lockdown blues and celebrate Olympic values and hoopla. More importantly, the IOC is keen to press ahead because it depends on selling broadcasting rights and sponsorships, accounting for about 90 percent of its revenue. So the show must go on. Along with Japanese authorities, the IOC appears willing to needlessly endanger residents of Japan and all those who attend.

There has been a flurry of activity since IOC Chairman Thomas Bach visited Tokyo in mid-November to demonstrate collective resolve in staging the Games on July 23-Aug. 8, which are then to be followed by the Paralympics. Japanese corporate sponsors have ponied up an additional $200 million on top of the record $3.3 billion already committed, while there is a plan for sharing the nearly $300 million in additional costs incurred due to postponement between Tokyo, the central government and local Olympic organizers. Officially the tab for the Games comes to about $13 billion, but a government audit published last year pegs the real tally at $28 billion.

It seems that all of these financial factors are trumping public health concerns and public opinion. Only 27 percent of Japanese favor holding the Games next summer while 63 percent are opposed; 32 percent favor cancellation while 31 percent favor postponement. But public preferences don’t matter to the power elite; it’s full speed ahead, damn the pandemic.

Japan’s third wave is blamed on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s “Go To Travel” campaign, which subsidizes domestic tourism, encouraging people to take trips as a way to boost the devastated hospitality and transport sectors. That helps explain why Suga has imploded in public opinion polls. Watching his support rate evaporate in the Mainichi poll by 17 percent in one month, Suga finally agreed to suspend the program during the New Year holidays, a tacit admission of the link between travel and transmission.

Postponing the Tokyo event until 2022 is a prudent alternative, but next summer’s grand public health experiment seems certain to proceed because the IOC needs the revenue, vast sums have been spent preparing for the extravaganza and ad giant Dentsu, which is deeply invested in the Games, is not averse to twisting arms and pulling strings to make it happen. Moreover, if Japan postpones or cancels, then the next Olympics would be hosted by Beijing in February 2022. Although the Winter Games are not nearly as big a deal, the Japanese government wants to avoid losing face even though the public is overwhelmingly unenthusiastic.

With the Dentsu PR juggernaut revving up, risks will be played down to make the inevitable seem, well, inevitable. Uncertainties abound, but it appears the fix is in, and barring a catastrophic surge in 2021, we will soon have greater empathy for guinea pigs.

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan, is the author of “Japan.”

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