Blog Post

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics & COVID-19

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 1:30 PM | Anonymous

By Megan Harris

As summer is in full swing and we enter July, we draw closer to the date that was supposed mark the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. While postponed to 2021, many questions remain unanswered about the Tokyo Olympics. We decided to take a closer look at the cancellation of the century-old games and explore both Tokyo and the athletes around the postponement.


Back in February, when neighboring South Korea was going through a spike in COVID-19 cases, Japan continued to live as though the virus was not really a threat. A State of Emergency was declared, schools were shut down temporarily, and strict restrictions were set for those seeking COVID-19 testing as to prevent the spread in hospitals, but very few other measures were put in place. As the rest of the world was closing restaurants and moving to work at home, I watched as friends on social media in Japan continued to live their daily lives, going to restaurants and karaoke, celebrating graduations together in big groups while wearing traditional Hakama and getting their hair and makeup done. The government seemed to act as though the virus wasn’t a threat, being hesitant to ban travelers from China, and there were rumors spreading that many Japanese employers told employees who had tested positive to hide their diagnosis. People living in Japan began to question why the country so notorious for public health concern and cleanliness would be so slow to react to this pandemic whose epicenter was right next door. Many therefore came to the same conclusion—the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Many began to believe that the reason the country refused to shut down was to avoid the postponement of the long awaited and costly Tokyo 2020 games.

Call from the World and WHO to Pull the Plug

Despite pressure from athletes and governments around the world, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and the Japanese government continued to insist through the month of March that the games could safely go on. Both Canada and Australia announced they would not send athletes if the games were not postponed, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee received survey results indicating that 70% of Olympic hopefuls thought it would be unfair to continue with the games in July as planned.

Sources believed that the IOC and the Japanese government may have been playing a game of chicken so to speak, with each side refusing to make the final decision to postpone the games due to fear of economic and legal consequences. On Monday, March 23rd, a special advisor to Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet announced to the BBC that the decision rests in the hands of the International Olympic Committee. However, later that week, after the World Health Organization consulted both parties and explained that the Olympics would be a great accelerator of the virus, the plug was pulled, and the 2020 Olympics were postponed. This is the second time a Japanese Olympics has been postponed, and first time ever that the Olympics have been postponed for reasons other than war efforts.

What Are Athletes Doing Now?

Of all those who have been effected by the cancellation of the world’s largest international sports competition, the athlete’s lives have especially been put on hold. After training their whole lives for this year’s competition, many are left worse off not only in mental condition, but worse physical condition as they struggle to find ways to train. In Uganda, Halima Nakaayi, the gold medalist in the 800 meters at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, has had to alter her training program significant; all the gyms and stadiums in Uganda have been closed since March, and her only option is to train on the roads of Kampala. She’s more worried, however, that with the cancellation of not only the Olympics, but competitions slated to take place before and after, that she may be out of her prime before her next chance to compete again.

The spokesperson of Uganda’s National Council of Sports expanded on this, saying that not only have athletes lost the momentum of the Olympic year, where their determination to do well at the games had put them in the best physical and mental shape of their lives, but they’ve also been put in a tight spot financially, as many of these other competitions are where athletes can make most of their money.

On the Olympics’ News website, veteran Olympians offer advice to those who were training for 2020. Chinese speed skater Hong Zhang tells other athletes to try to focus on short term goals, to think in terms of days rather than on months, seasons, or years. Canadian curler John Morris suggested switching up their sport for athletes who no longer have access to specific facilities needed for training. The Olympians also stress the importance of connection to others via the internet during these trying times in alleviating the feeling of training or being alone.

A Call for Permanent Cancellation by Tokyo Gubernatorial Candidates

During this time of heightened unknowns, there was a risk of further confusion thanks to the gubernatorial elections in Tokyo set to take place on July 5th. The incumbent, Yuriko had been facing widespread popularity following the relatively low number of coronavirus cases reported in Tokyo despite the size of the city. While Koike maintains that Tokyo will have the virus under control enough by 2021 to continue with the Olympics as planned, the few candidates who opposed her ran on platforms that focused on the postponement or even cancellation of the Olympics.

The most prominent of the opposing candidates, Kenji Utsunomiya, backed by three of the major left opposition parties, suggested that the Olympics should be canceled altogether and that the money be redirected to social welfare measures and economic revival in the fallout of COVID-19. Candidate Taro Yamamoto, former actor and member of the newly formed anti-establishment ‘Reiwa Shinsengumi’ Party, said the cancellation of the Olympics would actually be his primary order of business, should he be elected as governor. Candidate Taisuke Ono, Former vice governor of Kumamoto Prefecture, was supported by the Japan Innovation Party, and believed the Olympics should be pushed back further to 2022 or 2024, not canceled overall.

However, the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party was backing Koike, and despite the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party backing Utsunomiya, there was a high chance that the major opposition parties votes would likely be split between the many opposition party candidates, leading to a win for Koike.

Indeed, last weekend on July 5th, this is how the election unfolded, with Koike garnering 3,661,371 votes to Utsunomiya’s 844,151. With this win, Koike emphasized her plan to establish a CDC-like organization in Tokyo in order to support the simplified Olympics in 2021. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics posted a press release following the election, where the President of the Olympics Mori Yoshiro said he looked forward to the continued partnership with Koike, emphasizing the similarity in the way both he and Koike plan to approach the games.

Economic Impact and More Cancellations?

The delay of the Olympics alone is projected to cost Japan between $2 and $6 billion, most of which will be shouldered by Japanese taxpayers. Currently, Tokyo is trying to make a plan that will minimize costs as much as possible for the Olympics should they occur in 2021. For example, there’s been talk of combining the Paralympic and Olympic opening and closing ceremonies to cut down on costs, but Tokyo is hesitant to confirm anything yet.

Despite the high cost of the games, many have argued that cancellation will have negative repercussions on Tokyo. They’re afraid that without the revenue brought in by those coming to work and to watch the games, all the investments made into the Olympics thus far-- a sunk cost—have no hope of being offset without the financial benefit of Olympic tourism. Many believe this fear is what caused Tokyo and the committee to drag their heels on postponement of the Olympics in the first place. However, some experts are arguing that holding the Olympics after all will actually result in greater economic loss.

Economists Takuro Morinaga and Hiroko Ogiwara have claimed that in the world’s current vaccine-less state, holding the Olympics will actually hurt the economy rather than help it. In the absence of a vaccine, foreigners will be much less likely to travel to Tokyo for the games, and thus Olympic tourism will not provide the economic stimulation that was previously expected. Ogiwara says that the years-long development process for vaccines would make it impossible to be used on so many people in just a years’ time, and that even with a vaccine, the fallout from the pandemic will make people more hesitant to spend the money it would take to go to the Olympics. Morinaga stressed that the only way to minimize Japan’s net loss is to cancel the Olympics or to postpone until 2022, when there’s a higher chance of a vaccine being developed. However John Coates, IOC Head of Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020, still maintains that the event is not dependent on a COVID-19 vaccine.

So, What Happens Next?

In late February, Shaun Bailey, the UK Conservative Party’s Mayoral candidate for the London 2021 election, had tweeted boldly that London could host the games instead of Tokyo. However, most of the infrastructure put in place for London 2012 games has been dismantled, and Governor Koike of Tokyo called Bailey’s comments out for being “inappropriate.” At the time, the WHO and International Olympic Committee had told Tokyo 2020 task force members that there was no need to cancel or postpone the Olympics. However, as the games were eventually postponed, it begs a few questions—  if, despite the governor’s wishes, the city were to drop the games, would another country be allowed take them? Would another country be willing to take them? If cancelled, will Tokyo pick up the 2024 Olympics, ruining Paris 2024’s clever bid logo as it’s shifted back to 2028? Is there a future in which the this century-old tradition can continue without development and widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccine?

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