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  • Hanna Bajwa

Tokyo Olympics: Why did the Games Go Ahead?


On July 8th, 1853, Matthew Perry led his four ships from America into the harbour at Tokyo Bay, seeking to dissolve the 200-year isolation between Japan and the Western world, which arguably contributed to Japan’s ensuing political and societal turmoil. Surely it is not a coincidence that 168 years later to the day, when Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee Chief, arrived in Tokyo, the air filled with the same turmoil as over a century before. And for the second time in history, Japan finds its quarantine broken by not just the United States but also 205 other nations.

The political climate in Japan, especially Tokyo, is already incredibly precarious, filled with scandals and unpopular policies. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s support for the Olympic Games was not shared with thousands of people throughout the country, while he threatened the lives of them all by lifting measures intended to prevent the spread of Covid. At the lowest point in May, more than 80% of the Japanese public wanted the Olympics cancelled or postponed and only 5% of the country was vaccinated, which led to medical experts lining up to call the games an intolerable Covid-19 risk.

So why did Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga support the games? The Prime Minister claimed that the Olympics would be “proof that humanity has defeated the virus” and was confident to ensure that the events were “safe and secure”. However, despite these claims, actual evidence heavily contradicted the Prime Minister. As of July 25th, 127 people connected to the Olympic Games have tested positive, a number that is only expected to increase. Unease still remains throughout Japan, particularly given that the government has managed to fully vaccinate little more than 20 percent of the Japanese population. Unsurprisingly, the Olympic Games have damaged the Prime Minister’s approval ratings, reaching an all time low, while the rise of Covid cases forced him to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo from July 12th to August 22nd.

The confusion as to why the Prime Minister supported the Olympic Games proceeding during the pandemic remains. A number of high-profile sponsors including NEC, Panasonic, and Fujitsu did not send executives to the opening ceremony; Toyota went as far as refusing to air Olympic-related adverts on Japanese television due to the mixed sentiment from the Japanese citizens. Another factor against the Olympics going ahead was the Japanese medical community. The government’s main medical advisor, Dr. Shigeru Omi, has said it’s “abnormal” to hold the Olympics during a pandemic – yet despite these warnings they have been going ahead.

Three main factors can be said to have greatly influenced the Olympics going ahead in Japan. Firstly, there would be a huge financial loss to Japan and the IOC (International Olympic Committee). Japan has officially spent $15.4 billion, but government audits suggest the number may be twice as large. Due to a lack of ticket and merchandise sales as a result of the restrictions on sporting fans, the IOC must rely on broadcasting rights. A cancellation of the games would cost the IOC between 3 and 4 billion dollars in broadcasting rights income. Broadcast income and sponsors account for 91% of the IOC’s income, so a loss of these finances would have a lasting impact on both Japan and the IOC.

Secondly, there are questions as to who is actually in charge. The Tokyo organising committee, the Japanese Olympic Committee, the Prime Minister’s office, the Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, the Japan Sports Agency, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology all contribute and are largely influential in the games. The Prime Minister claimed that cancelling the games was not his responsibility, and this is not the first time that Japan has followed this route. In the 1964 Olympics Games in Japan, it was not until 600 days before the opening ceremony that Japan found someone willing to be the president of the local organising committee, showing the reluctance present and the fear of ‘losing face’.

Lastly, political opposition was and remains weak to Prime Minister Suga. Although the Olympics have resulted in damage to his political party, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) remain secure due to the opposition’s inability to govern. The government may be hoping that once the games start, public opinion will turn, or that, at the very least, the games will provide a distraction – although the rise of cases serves as an alarming reminder of the continuing dangers of the pandemic. Suga must call a general election by October 22nd of this year, and with the Paralympics closing on September 5th, it is thought that he is relying on the Olympic ‘feel good’ factor to influence the public and lead him to another election win. Japanese leaders are also greatly aware that Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in early 2022. A triumphant Olympic Games in China, held just eight months after an ignominious Japanese failure, is a prospect few LDP politicians want to contemplate.

Nevertheless, these Olympic Games leave many questions unanswered, most of which will not be resolved anytime soon. Who will take responsibility and be named as the one who could and should have cancelled the games? Are the Olympic Games political suicide for Suga? And how will Japan and the public be affected by coronavirus after the games are over? Only time will tell.

Image: Unsplash (Alex Smith)



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