COVID-19 cases rise just months ahead of Olympics, Tokyo residents at odds with whether Games should proceed

Fifty-seven years ago, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics signified the rebirth of a nation that had risen from the ashes of the Second World War. Those Games helped launch the beginning of an extended expansion that turned Japan into an economic superpower. 

But with the rescheduled 2020 Games set to begin July 23, the story is much different. The contrast is ironic.

“Most people are against it because of coronavirus issues, restrictions, costs in economic downturn, etc. If no COVID-19, then the majority would be for it,” said Robert Whiting, a Tokyo resident and an author and journalist who specializes in contemporary Japanese culture. 

Back in the early 1960s, most Japanese were initially opposed to hosting the Olympics, but ultimately came to cherish the symbolism of the event.

More than a half-century later, the population appeared ready to back staging the Summer Games again, only to have a pandemic derail the event and flip public opinion in the process.

“When Japan won the bid in 1959 most people were against the idea,” said Whiting, who in 2018 published “The Two Tokyo Olympics 1964/2020.” “The cost was too high and Tokyo had a lot of problems.”

Whiting noted a litany of issues that organizers were confronted with ahead of Japan’s first Olympics as the host nation.

“There was only one five-star hotel — the Imperial — which was falling into disrepair, no highway system, you couldn’t drink the tap water and only one fourth of structures in the city had flush toilets,” Whiting said. “But the city put up eight new expressways, two subway lines, five new five-star hotels, a monorail to and from Haneda Airport and a bullet train.”

The transformation of Tokyo in five years was nothing short of phenomenal.

An elevated expressway was built in the Akasaka-mitsuke area of Tokyo in preparation for the 1964 Olympics. (Getty Images)

1964 a ‘huge success’

“Life Magazine called it the ‘best Olympics ever’ [at the time] and the Games were a tremendous source of pride for Japanese, symbolized their re-entry into the global community after defeat in war,” Whiting said. “It was a huge success.”

In the leadup to the 2020 Games, most polls showed a majority of Japanese were in favour of hosting another Summer Olympics, but once the COVID-19 crisis began and persisted, the pendulum began to swing the other way.

On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, the same day the city reported a record of 2,447 new cases of COVID-19. Japan has attributed over 3,500 deaths to COVID-19, relatively low for a country of 126 million.

But two polls in recent months illustrated the sentiments as the rescheduled Games draw closer. Sixty per cent of those who responded to an Asahi TV poll in November wanted the extravaganza postponed or cancelled outright, while a Kyodo News poll in July found that just 24 per cent supported holding the Olympics as scheduled.

The ever-increasing cost of staging the Games has soured many and made the athletic part of the Olympics almost an afterthought.

I am a little bit disappointed that more than 80 per cent of the people feel that the Olympics can’t be held.– Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, Olympic gymnastics gold medallist

Japan’s National Audit Board released a report in December that estimated costs for the 2020 Olympics would run to $28 billion, with only $5.6 billion coming from private funds. 

“I don’t believe this is an efficient use of taxpayer money,” said Sanae Tanaka, a Tokyo resident. “This could be spent in more useful ways. Do we really need to use it for the Olympics?”

“I am worried about holding the Tokyo Olympics in this situation,” added Yuriko Komiyama. “I wonder if the situation will get better before next summer.”

The negativity that has begun to envelop talk of the Games has even trickled down to the athletes. In a recent interview, gymnastics legend Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medallist in the men’s all-around discipline and a six-time world champion in the event, cited his concerns.

The opening ceremony of the 1964 Olympics. (AFP via Getty Images)

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach (centre) wears a face mask as he visits the National Stadium in November. The venue is scheduled to host the opening ceremony on July 23. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Caution and safety

“I am a little bit disappointed that more than 80 per cent of the people feel that the Olympics can’t be held,” Uchimura said. “I would like everyone to think, ‘What can I do?’ and change their mindset in that direction. I know it is very difficult, but I wonder if the athletes will be able to perform unless they have the same feelings.”

Two-time Olympic figure skater (1976, 1980) and TV personality Emi Watanabe thinks caution and safety should be prioritized with regard to the Games.

“I know the pandemic has changed training schedules and many athletes in the world are suffering because they are not able to practice because of lockdowns,” Watanabe said. “We all have to sacrifice what is best for the human race rather than rush to hold the Olympics until COVID-19 disappears from our planet. I think it should wait until the world is a safe place again.” 

The Tokyo-based anti-Olympic group Hangorin No Kai, which participated in a protest during a visit by IOC president Thomas Bach to Japan in November, made its feelings known in written responses to a series of questions submitted to them.

Rather than enhancing medical care and social security associated with COVID-19, a huge budget will be used to hold the Olympics and Paralympics.– Anti-Olympic group Hangorin No Kai

“Our mission is to stop the Tokyo Olympics and have the Olympics abolished,” the group, which was formed in 2013, wrote. “The IOC and Tokyo Olympics organizers have never tried to meet with us.”

Hangorin No Kai indicated that the overwhelming majority of the public they have conversed with are concerned about long-term issues and how hosting the Olympics will impact society.

“Rather than enhancing medical care and social security associated with COVID-19, a huge budget will be used to hold the Olympics and Paralympics.”

When asked if their views would be different if the Olympics and surrounding costs were entirely privately financed, the group didn’t hold back.

A Tokyo streetscape in 1964 heralds the Games. (Getty Images)

A large screen shows Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday as he declares a state of emergency in Tokyo because of rising cases of COVID-19. (AFP via Getty Images)

Novelty worn off

“We have already lost public spaces and services, including the privatization of public parks due to privatization for the Olympics,” Hangorin No Kai said. “At present, the promotion of the Olympics has even invaded public education and has caused great damage like brainwashing and mobilizing students to support the Olympics. In addition to these, there is concern that the privatization of public education will be accelerated if the event is held with private investment.”

Whiting believes the novelty of hosting the Olympics, which the country has done three times previously (Tokyo 1964, Sapporo 1972, Nagano 1998), had worn off for the Japanese ahead of the Tokyo 2020 bid.

“Now, people are more blasé. Been there, done that,” Whiting said. “Many think the Games are too expensive and money should have been spent on the March 11, 2001, [earthquake and tsunami] recovery. Businesses were against it.”

Robert Whiting is the author of A Tale of Two Olympics, a comparison of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the Games scheduled for this summer. (Courtesy Robert Whiting)

Whiting pointed out that despite several missteps early on, most people did support hosting the Games again after the bid was secured.

“When Japan won the bid in Buenos Aires [in 2013] attitudes began to change,” Whiting said. “People got behind it despite embarrassments like the flawed National Stadium design, vote-buying scandal, plagiarized logo, e-coli in Tokyo Bay, where water events were to be held, and holding the Games in the brutal summer heat. The 1964 Games were held in October because the [Japan Olympic Committee] said summer was too hot.”

Japan-Forward.com sportswriter Ed Odeven, who has lived in the country for 14 years and covered multiple Olympics, believes there is still hope for the 2020 Games.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all opinion about the likelihood of Japan staging the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” Odeven said. “Plenty of people have doubts, but many observers within Japan can point to the successful completion of the Nippon Professional Baseball season, with gradual increases in maximum spectator capacity up to 50 per cent of venue capacity by season’s end.

“Other pro sports circuits, including soccer’s J. League and basketball’s B. League, and big competitions such as multiple Grand Sumo Tournaments have also adjusted to playing during the global pandemic, adhering to government health experts’ advice,” Odeven said. “This includes frequent COVID-19 testing for athletes, social distancing for fans in the overall seating setup and face masks for venue workers, media and fans.”

Olympic super-fan Kyoko Ishikawa in front of the National Stadium. The Tokyo resident has attended every Summer Olympics in the past 30 years and doesn’t plan on missing out on a Games in her home city in 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

Odeven cited the recent approval of vaccines as being significant. 

“The COVID-19 vaccine now starting to be administered could reduce fears about international travel to Japan for the Olympics if the efforts show a significant reduction in coronavirus cases,” Odeven said. “And that viewpoint would spread considerably among Tokyo 2020 organizers, athletes, coaches, etc. if other nations can demonstrate that the vaccine is working.

“People don’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about anything set for next summer,” Odeven said. “Everyone is just eager for [the pandemic] to end and for the massive impact of the pandemic on their lives — and all of the disruptions to normal routines — to go away as soon as possible.”

Odeven thinks the vaccines are the silver bullet that could restore faith in holding a massive sporting event in one of the biggest cities in the world in the wake of a pandemic.

“The vaccines are the real litmus test,” Odeven said. “If they can make a real impact in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus around the world, I think people’s expectations about the Olympics will rise.”

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