Tokyo 2020: Are these the Olympic Games that no one in Japan truly wants?

·5-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The clock is ticking. In the centre of Tokyo, an electronic board counts down the days until the Olympics get under way. On Tuesday, that wound itself down to 72 and, if anything with each passing day, objection to the Games in Japan is not diminishing.

According to polls, the majority of the population is against them going ahead this year – in some cases as much as 80%. A petition calling for its cancellation by a Tokyo lawyer garnered 325,000 signatures in a few days. That number is still rising steadily.

Among a population not renowned for public protests, there was a show of defiance at the weekend outside the Japan National Stadium as an athletics test event took place just a matter of metres away.

It begs the question, are these the Olympics that no one in Japan truly wants?

IOC president Thomas Bach showed he is not totally deaf to the objections from a nervous Japanese public in cancelling a trip there towards the end of this week to oversee final preparations for the year-delayed Tokyo Olympics.

To have travelled there in the midst of an extended state of emergency would have been a public relations disaster. And yet the message from Bach, the Japanese Government and the Games’ organising committee is that both the Olympics and Paralympics will go ahead as planned in a “safe and secure” environment.

His plan had been to witness the Olympic Torch relay, the course of which was rerouted for a fifth time this week because of Covid, while a series of cases have been linked to the relatively small relay entourage.

Having 205 nations and 11,000 athletes to contain safely and securely, not to mention tens of thousands of officials and media converge on a single city in the midst of a global pandemic is a somewhat greater undertaking.

On that issue Ayako Yoshida, of the anti-Games protest movement Hangorin No Kai, says quite simply, “we just don’t understand this”.

The group had planned to protest against Bach’s planned arrival in Tokyo, although he is adamant he will be back “as soon as possible”, the protestors expected not to be far away when he does finally land.

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Cases are rising in Japan. While deaths have been relatively low compared to much of the rest of the world – their 11,000 Covid deaths is far higher than their Asiatic neighbours - there is a fear of the unknown impact on such unwanted statistics in the aftermath of the Olympics.

“Ever since the beginning, the Government response to Covid-19 has been inadequate because everything they do was centred around the Games,” Yoshida said. “Instead of providing appropriate financial aid to those struggling due to Covid-19 restrictions, all types of resources were spent on the Olympic projects while discarding human lives. Our anger is exploding.”

A very small number of the Japanese population has been vaccinated – some 2 per cent - while Hangorin No Kai claims testing has been centred on a focused part of the population “in order solely to create an atmosphere to safely run the Games”.

ES
ES

But money talks, a reality that means Japanese organisers are at the point of no return. The official spend on the revised Games is £10billion but, if whispers are to be believed, the real cost is likely to be double that.

And there are fears of it also creating an unwanted additional pressure on medical services currently struggling with Covid cases. The number put out by organisers is that 10,000 medical workers in all will be needed for Tokyo 2020, with a relatively recent call put out for 500 more nurses and 200 sports doctors.

In response, Susumu Morita, secretary general of the Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Unions: “We must definitely stop the proposal to send as Olympic volunteers those nurses, tasked with protecting the fight against the serious coronavirus pandemic. I am extremely infuriated by the insistence of pursuing the Olympics despite the risk to patients’ and nurses’ health and lives.”

It is a medical opinion shared well outside Japan’s borders. In a recent edition of the British Medical Journal, there were calls to “reconsider this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games” and that “plans to hold the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer must be considered as a matter of urgency”.

In Japanese politics, the Games – often a cross-party element of unification in the days leading up to it – have also split opinion.

Yukio Edano, head of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, said in Parliament: “We have to say it is impossible to protect the lives, health and livelihoods of the Japanese people while holding the Olympics and Paralympics. It would be unacceptable if going ahead with the Games leads to insufficient measures that allow new variants of the coronavirus to be brought in from abroad.”

Interestingly, for perhaps the first time there have been voices of dissent from Japan’s own athletes.

Hitomi Niiya, a distance runner competing at the test event at the weekend, said: “Our profession as athletes comes from the understanding, cheering and support of the citizens. If you compete while ignoring them, you are not an athlete.”

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Meanwhile, Naomi Osaka, currently playing in Italy this week, said she still wanted her home Games to happen. But in the same breath, she said: “A lot of unexpected things have happened and, if it’s putting people at risk and if it’s making people very uncomfortable, then it definitely should be a discussion, which I think it is as of right now.” It was a same sentiment echoed by Japan’s No1 male player, Kei Nishikori.

Despite that discussion and opposition, there is a growing resignation in the final weeks before the opening ceremony that the Olympic juggernaut can no longer be derailed whatever the public sentiment.

Japan Times sports writer Dan Orlowitz said: “Some of it is maybe not quite resignation but people understand that unless something insane happens in terms of the global numbers, it’s probably going to happen.”

With 72 days to go, for the IOC, the Japanese Government and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee it’s Olympic business as usual.

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