Should the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Be Held? It’s Complicated

Jun 18, 2021

By Takao Ohashi, Attorney-at-law in Japan

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which have been postponed for one year, are now only one month away.

In Japan, however, the Covid-19 outbreak is not yet under total control, and a state of emergency has been declared in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, forcing sports and entertainment events to be cancelled, or held on a much-reduced scale.

According to the poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in May, an official sponsor of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, 41% of respondents said the Games should be “canceled”, 40% said it should be “postponed”, and only 14% said it should be “held”. Regarding Prime Minister Yosihide Suga’s claim that “it is possible to realize a safe and secure convention,” 73% of respondents said they were not convinced. When asked how spectators should be treated if the Games are held, 59% said “no spectators,” 33% said “limit the number of spectators,” and only 3% said “normal number of spectators”.

I firmly believe that the reaction of the Japanese people is largely due to the irresponsibility of the Japanese government, the IOC, the Organizing Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and others involved in the Games, who have little or no regard for the current situation in Japan.

As for the Japanese government, its first mistake was the failure to secure the vaccine for Covid-19. As of June 13, only 4.9% of the population in Japan had been vaccinated with the required number of Covid-19 doses. Its second mistake was the failure to implement a mandatory lockdown like other countries. Rather, it has repeatedly declared an unenforceable state of emergency and taken prevention measures based on self-restraint. The first declaration of a state of emergency was when the city was almost empty. But by the second and third declarations, it is not clear whether the state of emergency is still in effect or had already been lifted. In addition, most Japanese people do not understand the difference between the declaration of a state of emergency and prevention measures, which have become less effective measures. During the period of emergency declaration, restaurants are required to refrain from serving alcoholic beverages and to stay open until 8:00 p.m. Also, sporting events are required to be played behind closed doors or postponed. Since June 1, the maximum number of spectators for sporting events has been relaxed to 5,000.

In Japan, the number of people infected on a daily basis has been gradually decreasing from the peak of the fourth wave of Covid-19. However, those receiving hospital treatment has exceeded 30,000 and that puts pressure on medical facilities. Doctor Shigeru Omi, a member of the subcommittee on novel coronavirus disease control of the government, has expressed an opinion that “it is not normal to hold the Olympic and Paralympic Games under the current circumstances.” And, Haruo Ozaki, the president of the Tokyo Medical Association, said “if the current situation continues, it will be difficult to hold the Games”. Some experts have also pointed out the risk of a fifth wave of “Olympic mutant of Covid-19” strains if the Olympics and Paralympics are held under the current conditions.

Prime Minister Yosihide Suga’s statement that “it is possible to realize safe and secure Games” is somehow not convincing at all.

The correspondence of the IOC, the Organizing Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and other officials involved in the Games has been appalling. IOC President Thomas Bach and Vice-President John Coates, who have no say over Japanese people at all, have stated that the Games will be held even under the declared state of emergency, which has aroused strong opposition from the Japanese. While close contact is prohibited and alcoholic beverages cannot be served in restaurants, 160,000 condoms were distributed in the Olympic Village and alcoholic beverages were allowed to be brought in, which was also a major factor in arousing the antipathy of the Japanese people, whose behavior is quite restricted.

Seiko Hashimoto, the chairperson of the organizing committee, and Yuriko Koike, the governor of the Tokyo metropolitan government, have avoided mentioning whether or not the Games should be held, citing the fact that they do not have the authority to decide whether or not to cancel the Games. These two women have not shown any leadership in organizing the Games. This seemingly irresponsible stance of the top organizers of the Games seems to be a source of dissatisfaction among the Japanese.

The irresponsible behavior of those in charge of organizing the Games, with no regard for the current situation in Japan, and their “do-nothing” attitude, have not only led to a backlash against them, but also to criticism of individual athletes. Women’s swimmer Rikako Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2019, effectively ruling her out of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Since the Tokyo Olympics have been extended by one year, she has returned from her illness and has been selected to participate in the Tokyo Olympics as a relay member after breaking the dispatch standard record in the 400m medley relay at the Japanese Championships in April 2021. However, she received several posts on her SNS asking her to raise her voice against the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics.

Many Japanese people feel the contradiction that only those involved in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are given special treatment while their activities are restricted for a prolonged period of time. In the midst of a global pandemic crisis, many Japanese people do not see the significance of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a sporting event. Neither the Japanese government, the IOC, the organizing committee, nor the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been able to show any significance as to why the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should be held now.

If sports festivals should be held in times of peace, should they be held in times of crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic? In fact, the first Tokyo Olympics was supposed to be held in 1940, but due to the influence of the Sino-Japanese war, the right to host the event was withdrawn.

I am worried that even if the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are held without the understanding of about 80% of the Japanese people, it will in fact undermine the value and social meaning of the Olympics and Paralympics, which in turn will undermine the value and reputation of sports.