COVID has raised the stakes of hosting the Games to unprecedented levels but we need the Olympics more than ever before.
Although they are one year later, the “2020” Tokyo Olympics are finally around the corner, with less than two months to go before the opening ceremony.
The Olympics have never been so uncertain or locally unpopular, driven by large parts of Japan, including the capital, Tokyo, being in a state of emergency due to COVID-19, with polls showing that 80 percent of Tokyo’s population are against the Games.
The Japanese government under new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has so far resisted the pressure to cancel. But is Suga right to gamble Japan’s health for a sporting event?
The Olympics are the most prominent global event a country can hope to host. Prospective nations would roll out the red carpet to woo the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a bid to become the host city. The winner is “awarded” the obligation to spend billions of their citizens’ taxpayers’ cash to build the necessary infrastructure to host 339 events in 33 sports, with brand new stadiums, new roads and thousands of apartments to house the Athletes Village.
Ministers usually justify this huge cost by extolling the virtues of raising their country’s profile, with billions of people watching the events on TV and millions of tourists flooding into the host city to boost the economy. Further prestige comes from bringing world leaders together to build strategic relationships and strike deals. The Olympics can also be a catalyst for new infrastructure, which will bring in jobs and investment. If done right, the Olympics can leave better services for local citizens to enjoy for decades to come.
However, COVID has raised the stakes of hosting the Olympics to unprecedented levels. Japan is already paying dearly for the event, with costs ballooning from the initial $7.3bn budget to potentially more than $26bn, the most expensive Summer Olympics on record.
The one-year delay to this Olympics alone has cost $2.8bn, and billions more are being spent on new safety protocols, maintaining the payroll of thousands of staff for another year and not being able to sell apartments at the Athletes Village, which comprises 5,632 luxury homes, to the private sector. Flight restrictions also mean the expected tourism income has plummeted. The Japanese people will be expecting a return on all of that investment.
The largest gamble, of course, is on the nation’s health. Japan is battling a surge in COVID-19 cases, with residents questioning the wisdom of letting 15,000 athletes and their entourage from 200 countries into the country during a time of increasingly contagious variants. Japan has the most elderly population in the world, with one-third of Japan’s people aged over 65, making COVID-19 a particular threat given its deadliness to the elderly. There may also be a further economic cost if the Olympics leads to more lockdowns. If Japan had the level of vaccination intake of, say, Israel or the UK, perhaps Tokyo residents would feel more comfortable, but less than 5 percent of the Japanese population has had a single jab so far.
The constant media speculation about whether the Olympics will go ahead must be corrosive for the event organisers, not helped by Tokyo’s Olympic Chief Mori Yoshiro’s resignation over his offensive remarks about women. As the costs and COVID-19 cases have mounted, the thought of pulling the plug has likely flashed across the mind of Prime Minister Suga. Surely any spike in the virus post-Olympics would be fatal for his government?
Yet, the Japanese government is right to resist cancelling the event. The tide against the pandemic is turning, and vaccine rollouts continue at pace across the world. As a technologically advanced nation, Japan is well placed to showcase its innovation and imagination to manage protocols through rapid tests, vaccines, tracking apps and, if necessary, virtual audiences. There is also no Plan B. The government has ruled out any further delays and cancellation would mean further costs through the breaking of contracts with broadcasters.
After 18 months of relentless battles against a common enemy, we need the Olympics more than ever before. The athletes who have trained for years, often against extreme adversity, echo the billions of individual stories across the world of people who similarly have faced life-changing challenges. Forfeiting the Olympics would be a painful symbol of defeat.
The upside will come for Japan. The sceptical British public was downcast when the London Olympics started in 2012, with complaints about costs during a time of a recession and low attendance at events, but that was soon replaced with abiding memories of national pride as they hosted the greatest show on earth. Japan will soon feel this too, injecting a new sense of optimism and national honour that will leave a positive legacy, including inspiring their younger generations to take up a sport.
There is no reason why an advanced country like Japan cannot hold an excellent if slightly different Olympics. It may even spur some innovation and reform in the Games, which sometimes can feel formulaic. The arduous journey to get there would make hosting the 2020 Tokyo Games even sweeter as we witness humanity coming together against all odds. Isn’t that what the Olympics is all about?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.