Tokyo’s turbulent journey to hosting the Olympics

From promise, to postponement, to perseverance: Tokyo’s turbulent journey to hosting the Olympics

Name and branding aside, virtually every aspect of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games has been altered since the historic decision to postpone the event for a year. Leadership upheaval, social turbulence and lingering fears tied to the pandemic have conspired to cast a shadow over Japan’s moment in the sun, forcing organisers to adapt this summer’s Games beyond .

When he appeared at the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics dressed as Super Mario, the then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe gave the world a glimpse of what his innovative, playful but sternly traditional country would offer as hosts of the 2020 edition.

A lot has happened since then, but the Games of the XXXII Olympiad are going ahead – even if Abe, like so much related to the event, has been displaced and replaced throughout the most challenging period of Olympic preparations in living memory.

The huge and densely populated Japanese capital Tokyo won the contest to host the 2020 Games in 2013, beating off rival bids from Madrid and Istanbul. It is more than likely that despite being disappointed eight years ago, a collective sigh of relief has been released by officials in the losing cities on more than one occasion in recent months.

Abe himself was at the forefront when it came to securing his country’s bid, assuring voting members within the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the cost of rebuilding Japan’s economy, after the fallout from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, would not dilute the country’s fiscal commitment to hosting the Games. Like many before him, the shrewd leader saw the Olympics as a glittering prize that could help stimulate the languid Japanese economy, leave a sporting and personal legacy whilst expunging the recollections of the Fukushima radiation leak.

On paper, he was probably right. The winning bidder could rely on massive inbound tourism and unconditional backing from nationalistic corporate Japan, including some of the world’s biggest conglomerates and car manufacturers. But in August 2020, citing ill health, Abe announced that he was stepping down to receive new and more prolonged medical treatment. His departure meant that the weighty Olympic baton was passed to Yoshihide Suga, an Abe loyalist and former chief cabinet secretary.

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe played a pivotal role in Tokyo's bid before stepping down in August 2020 due to ill health

Five months earlier, as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was unfolding across the world, and the Olympic flame had already touched down in Japan, Abe had faced the global media to give them the news that Tokyo 2020 would be postponed. Japan had been under increasing pressure to reschedule from a number of quarters, including athletes and sports administrators, as the virus began to tighten its grip around the globe.

In delaying the Games for a year, Abe and IOC president Thomas Bach agreed to do something that had never been done before: although they had been canceled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 due to war, the summer Games had never been postponed since the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1896.

"I confirmed with president Bach that there will be no cancellation," Abe said at the time. “We agreed to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in the summer of 2021 at the latest.”

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, who had been with Abe and Bach during the historic teleconference, said optimistically that the postponement would give the world a goal to accomplish as the fight against the virus would have been won by the summer of 2021. And so began a year of economic, political, logistical and social challenges for the 2020 host, many of which are still far from being resolved as the Games arrive.

Trouble at the top

Since Abe departed the Olympic stage, the TOC and IOC have aspired to present a united front, repeatedly insisting the Games will go ahead. But they have not made it easy for themselves or their partners. In early February Yoshiro Mori (below, right), the head of the TOC and a former Japanese prime minister, was forced to quit over sexist remarks he made in a meeting with members of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC). The 83-year-old stood down as the organisation’s president after commenting that board of directors meetings involving women take up too much time.

“When you increase the number of female executive members, if their speaking time isn't restricted to a certain extent, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying,” he was quoted as saying.

Up until recently, Mori’s caustic comments, in a country that runs an acutely patriarchal society where older men reign, might have been brushed aside. But his transgression came at a time of global societal change. Within hours of the comments going public and then viral across social platforms, a number of online petitions called for Mori’s resignation, with the TOC besieged by several thousand angry phone calls over the remarks. More tangibly, over 1,000 people, most of them women, pulled out as volunteers for the Games.

In the wake of the calls for real structural change on the local organising committee, five benchmarks were set out for selecting the new TOC president. As well as being familiar with preparations for the Tokyo Games, it was crucial the new head should represent gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and have the ability to implement those principles throughout the delivery of the Games.

By mid-February, Seiko Hashimoto, a former Japanese government minister and seven-time Olympian, was selected as Mori’s replacement. On her appointment, she said: “I'm sure the Games are going to attract more attention related to gender equality, and in this regard I am determined to regain trust, by my fullest endeavours. As someone with an athletic background, I will carry out a safe Games for both athletes and citizens.”

But the Japanese government has already dropped the baton on one promise that would have supported Hashimoto’s hopes for a more inclusive Olympics. On the afternoon of 16th June, Japan’s parliament ended its last session before the Games begin without passing a promised law on LGBT understanding, shredding a ruling party vow to host what is intended to be a “diversity” showcase. The bill, under which discrimination against LGBT individuals would be deemed unacceptable, was dropped by Suga’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and expired when the parliament session ended.

“The Olympic Charter clearly bans discrimination,” Gon Matsunaka, the head of Pride House Tokyo, a group that promotes LGBTQ understanding, told Bloomberg. “This is a breach of the contract with the International Olympic Committee.”

The figure of IOC president Thomas Bach looms over Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto during an organisers' meeting in March

Public dissidence

Hashimoto inherited the role at a time when the Japanese public’s sentiment towards the Games had already deteriorated. Numerous opinion polls conducted since the start of 2021 have consistently showed a majority of the Japanese population believe the event should either be cancelled or postponed again. And despite guarantees that the Games will be operated within a safe and secure bubble, that athletes and officials will not interact with the public directly and a stuttering Covid-19 vaccination programme is now finally operating, the public position towards the Games remains apathetic.

A public opinion survey, conducted in May by the Japanese daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun showed 59 per cent wanted the Games cancelled, compared to 39 per cent who said they should be held. Another poll conducted by Tokyo Broadcasting System over the same period found 65 per cent wanted the Games cancelled or delayed, with 37 per cent voting to scrap the event altogether and 28 per cent calling for another postponement.

The Olympics is not a place to be political, it's a place for sport and to bring the whole world together, but the whole Black Lives Matter movement is more than political.

Staunch anti-Games campaigner Kenji Utsunomiya took his opposition to the Games online in the form of a petition addressed to Bach and posted on in both English and Japanese. At the time of writing, the online rallying call, which demanded that the Olympics be cancelled, had garnered about 450,000 signatures, surpassing its original target of 200,000 since it was created in early May.

Most respondents to the polls have commented that the Games should not proceed during the pandemic until the majority of the host nation has been vaccinated. Up until June, the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in Japan had been languid and among the slowest of developed countries. While it has subsequently picked up pace, as of 4th July vaccination numbers still lagged behind other nations, with about 13 per cent of the Japanese population fully vaccinated and 25 per cent having received their first dose.

In pressing ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, then, Suga is seen as taking a calculated risk on his own political future. A general election must be held in Japan before October 2022, and many observers see the prime minister’s backing of the Games as being deeply tied to his own career ambitions.

Should the Games be successfully completed with no major Covid-19 incidents, Suga could use any feel-good factor to call an early election, dissolving parliament shortly after the end of the Paralympic Games on 5th September. Any calamity associated with the Games, however, could see his political aspirations extinguished along with the Olympic flame.

Perhaps hoping to appease the unconvinced Japanese public, in May Bach announced a deal had been struck between the IOC and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which said it would make vaccines available to athletes in nations that were not in a position to give priority to those competing in Tokyo. According to Bach, the “donation of the vaccine” would be “another tool in our toolbox of measures” to help make the Games “safe and secure for all participants, and to show solidarity with our gracious Japanese hosts”.

Alongside the vaccine deal, a set of Tokyo 2020 Playbooks (below, left) was produced with the aim of protecting all Olympic and Paralympic Games participants and the people of Japan. Developed jointly by Tokyo 2020, Olympic and Paralympic officials, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Tokyo and Japanese governments, the comprehensive guidelines provide extensive details for each key stakeholder group attending the Games, including athletes, officials, international federations, marketing partners, broadcasters, press, staff, contractors and volunteers.

In the third and final iteration of the Playbooks, released on 15th June, organisers confirmed that competitors will be screened for Covid-19 on a daily basis and will be required to submit saliva samples through liaison officers employed by their respective national Olympic committees. It was also indicated that athletes and delegates could be expelled from Japan or receive financial penalties for breaching protocols.

Earlier playbook editions, released in February and updated in April, banned singing and chanting during events and said attendees must wear masks at all times, except when outdoors or eating. However, with some athletes having already tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Japan, and infection cases in the Japanese capital still rising, further controls could yet be added ahead of the Games.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of cultural and societal change in many parts of the world, the IOC is anxious that athletes will use the platform of the Games to highlight grievances. To address that they have confirmed that Rule 50, a regulation which prohibits any kind of ‘demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda’ in venues and any other Olympic areas, will remain in place for Tokyo 2020.

That means Olympians could be punished for taking a knee or drawing attention to human rights issues. But with a number of athletes already voicing their objection to the ruling, the IOC’s athletes commission might find itself working overtime in the Japanese capital. Indeed, British sprinter Adam Gemili previously accused the IOC of double standards in sticking rigidly with Rule 50 and believes “all hell would break loose” if athletes' voices are silenced at the Games.

“The Olympics is not a place to be political, it's a place for sport and to bring the whole world together, but the whole Black Lives Matter movement is more than political,” he told Sky Sports. “It’s about being a good human and equal rights for everyone is not something which should be turned away so easily like they're doing.”

All-important test events have taken place amid growing scepticism surrounding the Games

Commercial turbulence

Citing the rising number of Covid-19 variant strains both domestically and internationally, in March the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the TOC decided overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Games. More than 600,000 tickets had been snapped up by foreign fans, and while they will receive some form of refund, the organisers had no liability for other costs, such as air fares or hotel bookings, incurred by those who intended to travel.

In a statement announcing the decision, Bach said he shared “the disappointment of all enthusiastic Olympic fans from around the world…who were planning to come to the Games”, adding: “For this I am truly sorry. We know that this is a great sacrifice for everybody. We have said from the very beginning of this pandemic that it will require sacrifices.”

For some Olympic partners, in particular the 68 domestic sponsors backing the Games in the host country, those sacrifices were clear. In January, all local sponsors reaffirmed their commitment to the event, agreeing in principle to extend their contracts. But that was prior to the resignation of the disgraced Mori, the exclusion of spectators and the implementation of a Covid-19 state of emergency across several prefectures, including Tokyo.

We know that this is a great sacrifice for everybody. We have said from the very beginning of this pandemic that it will require sacrifices.

Without any international spectators and uncertainty over the presence of local fans at Olympic events, sponsors were left facing up to the reality that they would not receive many of the marketing benefits they had expected. A number also voiced concerns that the negative public feedback on the Games could even harm their brand equity. As such, several were said to have hired consulting firms to advise them on whether to push ahead with Olympic-themed marketing plans or limit their exposure.

Japan’s business leaders, who are normally docile when it comes to openly criticising the country’s rulers, also weighed in, expressing strong doubts over the decision to proceed with the Games amid the global pandemic. SoftBank Group founder and chief executive Masayoshi Son, the country’s richest man, aired his unease, saying: “Currently more than 80 per cent of people want the Olympics to be postponed or cancelled. On whose and on what authority is it being forced through?”

In a follow-up tweet, he added: ‘There's talk about a huge penalty [if the Games are cancelled]. But if 100,000 people from 200 countries descend on vaccine-laggard Japan and the mutant variant spreads, lives could be lost, subsidies could result if a state of emergency is called, and gross domestic product could fall. If we consider what the public has to endure, I think we could have a lot more to lose.’

Toyota, one of the Games’ most prominent backers, echoed that sentiment. Jun Nagata, a senior executive at the carmaker, told investors in May that he felt “conflicted” over the desire to see the Olympics proceed. “As sponsors, it breaks our heart to see public discontent aimed at athletes,” he said. “To be honest, we are conflicted every day over what the best course of action is.”

The Nomura Research Institute reported that if the Olympics do go ahead without spectators the economic benefit to Japan would be US$15.2 billion, US$1.34 billion less than if they were held with domestic fans in attendance. Subsequently in June, local officials and the IOC decided to allow up to 10,000 domestic spectators at Olympic events, provided each venue does not exceed 50 per cent capacity.

But that ruling was subsequently revised in July as Suga extended Japan's state of emergency until 22nd August amid rising infection rates, with organisers confirming that the general public would not be able to attend events and only VIPs, Olympic dignatories and some schoolchildren would be permitted inside venues in Tokyo and the neighbouring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. The call was finally made after Dr Shigeru Omi, the Japanese government's top coronavirus advisor, and other infectious disease experts had consistently warned that allowing people into venues could lead to another surge in cases.

The decision would not, however, deter the IOC from defiantly pressing ahead with the Games. And so, with the stage set for the opening ceremony on 23rd July, what promised to be Japan's moment in the sun must now be delivered under a dark cloud of uncertainty.

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