Tokyo Olympics – What Is Japan up to?

As July is fast approaching, all eyes are on Tokyo Olympics. What was scheduled to take place in 2020 has been postponed to this year. Ironically, Japan is still battling the pandemic, which is only growing severe every passing day. The Olympics countdown does not really promise positivity and motivation; rather the countdown is merely a threat to the Tokyo Olympics organising committee and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) that are struggling to handle the situation adroitly. Ever since the hundred-day countdown began for the Olympics this year, the concerns over the spreading of coronavirus kept growing consistently among the general public in Japan and across the world as well as among the participants. It would have been easier for Japan if the country had done well in terms of containing the pandemic. Because then, the country can claim that it is a safe bubble away from the rest of the world. Alas, the geographical distance of Japan from other countries (at least 120 miles away from the Eurasian landmass and around 500 miles away across the East China Sea) did not help much in containing the spread of coronavirus. The geographical distance kept Japan from major territorial battles across ages (with the exception of a few), but it did not help Japan in warding off the fierce coronavirus.

The reality is more harsh than expected for Japan. The nation has been subjected to pillory from across the board that includes Japanese people. In fact, Japanese people have been protesting against the conducting of Olympic games in July ever since the Olympic Torch relay began. Notably, Kane Tanka, the oldest person in the world (aged 118), was supposed to take part in the torch relay. But he refused to take part in it citing health concerns. Several other celebrities have also pulled themselves out of the relay for health concerns. Polls taken across Japan show that more than seventy percent of the public are leaning against the Olympics being conducted this year, which is undeniably a substantial amount. Last month, a Japanese lawyer filed a petition against the Olympics being conducted this year and it has been signed by more than four hundred thousand people until now.

The protests and voices against the Tokyo Olympics 2020 raises the question: how bad is the situation in Japan at present?

Plainly put, the situation is dire in Japan. With 7.53 lakh virus cases and sizable number of deaths, the country is fighting a losing battle. The major prefectures that include Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto are under lockdown and severe restrictions. The vaccination drive in Japan looks inert with only over 5% of the total population getting vaccinated so far. The country is planning to overcome the problem before July only by imposing lockdowns and severe restrictions which seems like trying to contain an elephant with a thin piece of thread as a fence. Taking its cue from the Indian Premier League (IPL) which was conducted in the midst of the virus, the organising committee is trying to actualise the event. However, their efforts with grit and guile will most probably go futile. And it is to be noted that even IPL got cancelled as the players started to contract the virus and the spread became inevitable. Imagine an event like the Olympics that is hundred times bigger than IPL, the participation will be enormous and containing the spread of the virus will definitely be a herculean task. With the event expecting the participation of around 80,000 volunteers, more than 10,000 of them have already withdrawn due to growing coronavirus concerns. Moreover, the Olympics is about to host over 10,000 athletes from more than 190 countries. Scientists and researchers fear that the colossal ambition of the Olympics organising committee might easily give rise to a new Olympic variant of coronavirus. So why does Tokyo not want to cancel the event whilst the pandemic is taking a huge toll on Japan? Why is the Olympics so important to the country that it is willing to put millions of lives under stake?

The economic loss that the country must face in the event of cancellation of the Olympic games is simply not bearable. This is one of the primary reasons why Japan is keen on conducting the event this year. But this is not the only factor. The contract between Tokyo and the IOC does not give Tokyo the direct rights to cancel the event. As the sports lawyer Alexander Miguel Mestre explains the BBC network, “There’s one article regarding cancellation and it only gives the option for the IOC to cancel, not the host city. That’s because the Olympic Games is an ‘exclusive property’ of the IOC and as the ‘owner’ of the Games, it is the IOC that can terminate the said contract”. “One reason to justify cancellation”, the BBC explained further, “ is that if the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason whatsoever. And the pandemic could be seen as such a threat”.

The rule applies to any host of the Olympic Games and it is entirely normal for Tokyo to have accepted the terms of the contract. Except, both the IOC and Tokyo did not expect an unprecedented crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, in order to save itself from the potential economic loss, Tokyo has no option but to wait for the IOC to cancel the Games by itself so that it can join hands with the IOC and claim insurance for the loss incurred.

While the economic factor seems like a perfect reason for Tokyo’s stubbornness, the reasons do not end there with mere economic factors. Glimpses from the past of Japan will reveal another reason for Tokyo’s reluctance to cancel the Olympic Games. The previous time Japan hosted the Olympics was during the year 1964, when Japan was still in the phase of revival from the bruises of World wars and economic recessions. The country needed an event that is as grand and pompous as the Olympics to boost its economy and its spirits of economic revamp. And the Olympics served that very purpose of symbolising the rebuilding of Japan after the second World War. The current situation in Japan is comparable to that of what it was in 1964. Japan has been facing natural disasters like Tsunami apart from the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The country has been facing a steady decline in population as Tim Marshall explains in his classic book on geopolitics ‘Prisoners of Geography’, “Japanese statisticians fear that the population will shrink to under 100 million by the middle of the century. If the current birth rate continues, it is even possible that by 2110 the population will have fallen below the 50 million it was in 1910.” The direct effect of the population decline is the dwindling economy as the young and healthy working population will keep decreasing and soon the country will comprise of geriatric working population. The Olympics will have a greater positive impact on Japan’s economy, therefore.

In addition to this, Japan’s regional rival, China, is scheduled to be the host of the Olympics 2022. And Japan will not want to miss its final opportunity to host the Games before its regional rival takes the stage. Thus, it makes sense that Japan is not willing to give up yet.

Japan, in order to ensure the Olympics take place this year, has been taking stringent actions and strict measures to contain and control the spread of the virus. As noted earlier, major prefectures like Tokyo are under lockdown and rigorous restrictions. Counter measures like strict border control and arrangements for the participating athletes have been implemented. The organising committee has been executing measures like creating a separate area that could serve as a bubble to prevent the athletes from contracting the virus. Regular and periodic COVID-19 tests for the athletes will be conducted to ensure the control of spread within the Olympic village.

The countermeasures are certainly not fool proof (at least the country cannot make such a claim) and it is still unsure if the apparatus will work. It is notable that the Olympics has only been cancelled thrice since its inception in 1896. The reason for the cancellation of the Games (all three times) was either World War I or World War II. The battle against COVID-19 is also a war of some sort as people in all nations are affected resulting in a substantial number of dealths. Will this battle ruin the great Olympic plans as it happened in the previous two World Wars? We do not know. It is in the hands of the IOC and Tokyo organising committee to save their faces from the indelible ignominy in the event of the Games happening and turning into an irreparable mistake. After all, survival takes the podium of importance, when humanity is combating the pandemic, not the Games.

– Subiksha Kumar (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: / Reuters

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