Who stands to benefit from Tokyo's pandemic Olympics?

Financial and political compulsions should not trump the possible human cost
Demonstrators hold placards in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan government building during an anti-Olympic protest in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. More evidence emerged that the Japanese publics opposition to next months Tokyo Olympics is losing steam, according to a series of media polls published roughly one month before the opening ceremony. Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Who wants the summer Olympics to go ahead in Tokyo next month? Some polls show a majority of Japanese respondents oppose holding the Games, already delayed from 2020 because of Covid-19, this summer – although public opposition may be weakening as we get closer to the starting date of July 23. The government's chief medical adviser, Dr Shigeru Omi, only this month told a parliamentary committee it would be "abnormal" to hold the Olympics during a worldwide pandemic.

The highly respected New England Journal of Medicine warned that the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) determination to proceed was "not informed by the best scientific evidence". Even Japan's Emperor Naruhito has weighed in – a very rare intervention by a head of state who is constitutionally prohibited from making politically contentious statements. "The emperor is extremely worried about the current status of coronavirus infections," Yasuhiko Nishimura, the grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, told a news conference last week. "Given the public's worries, he appears to be concerned about whether the event would cause infections to spread."

US President Joe Biden may have given his support for the Tokyo Olympics to take place as planned when he met Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the sidelines of the recent G7 summit, but the latest US State Department's travel advisory is blunt: "Reconsider travel to Japan due to Covid-19." At least that was better than the one issued in May: "Do not travel."

The reasons for the reluctance are obvious. Only five per cent of the Japanese people have been fully vaccinated so far. The number of cases in the country as a whole are on a downward trend, but they are going up in Tokyo, leading Mr Suga to declare on Monday: “We must be on a high state of alert in dealing with the virus.”

Despite severe restrictions on the numbers of spectators at the games, there will still be a huge influx of people – journalists, trainers, diplomats, officials and, of course, athletes. As the SoftBank tycoon Masayoshi Son tweeted last month: "If 100,000 people from 200 countries descend on vaccine-laggard Japan and the mutant variant spreads, lives could be lost, subsidies could result if a state of emergency is called, and gross domestic product could fall. If we consider what the public has to endure, I think we could have a lot more to lose."

It should not need to be stated that in countries that have yet to achieve herd immunity or high levels of vaccination, mass events of any kind are just asking for trouble. Grave diggers in Jakarta have been overwhelmed by the sharp rise in Covid-19-related deaths in Indonesia, which is partly attributable to the millions who evaded travel restrictions to go to their home towns to celebrate Eid Al Fitr.

In Malaysia, the government had managed to get the number of daily new cases down to the low three figures in June 2020. What sabotaged the good work achieved by a hard lockdown was an election in the state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. The then chief minister called it last September because he feared losing his position, due to defections in the state assembly. He and his allies were defeated in the polls by a coalition aligned to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, so he lost his job anyway – but the unnecessary vote, with all the electioneering and impossible-to-police gatherings that went with it, led to a spike in infections not only in the state but then in the rest of the country. Having almost completely opened up, Malaysia is now enduring another gruelling lockdown as a result.

epa09279083 Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (L) and Shigeru Omi, President of the Japan Community Health Care Organization, attend a news conference on Japan's response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 17 June 2021. The Japanese government decided to lift in nine prefectures, including Tokyo, the COVID-19 state of emergency, which is due to end on 20 June 2021. The government also decided to keep restrictions to avoid a rebound of infections before the Tokyo Olympics.  EPA/ISSEI KATO / POOL
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It is hard not to conclude that the impetus to keep the Olympics on is all about the money

As for Japan, the numbers of new and highly transmissible variants may be low at present. But two members of Uganda's Olympic team who arrived in the last few days have tested positive for Covid-19, and one had already travelled in a bus with local officials before being identified as being infected. It doesn't matter what "safeguards" are put in place: they could never possibly be 100 per cent effective, and restrictions on spectators, such as a ban on "talking loudly", just don't cut it. How would the latter be enforced, in any case? Will officials run around the stands saying "shhhh"?

One of the two Ugandans had the Delta variant. Australian officials have discovered that it can be passed on during encounters of only 5-10 seconds, as opposed to the 10-15 minutes of proximity we had previously been warned about over the past year or so. The risks are so enormous, it would be foolish to proceed. Dr Naoto Ueyama, chairman of the Japan Doctors Union, put it starkly last month. "Since the emergence of Covid-19, there has not been such a dangerous gathering of people coming together in one place from so many different places around the world," he said.

The IOC and Mr Suga beg to differ. They point to stringent protocols, testing, social distancing, and isolating the athletes at the Olympic Village. Mr Suga is also believed to be banking on a bounce from a successful games if he calls a snap election shortly after they finish.

But it is hard not to conclude that the impetus to keep the Olympics on is all about the money – partly the sunk costs on the part of the host nation in terms of building infrastructure and so on, but far more about the billions of dollars from broadcasting revenue that the IOC will not receive if they are cancelled.

Dr Ueyama put his finger on it when he asked: “The question is for whom are the Olympics being held and for what purpose?” It would be the most grotesque irony if an event that celebrates athleticism and health ended up causing new waves of infections as athletes, spectators and others return home and unwittingly pass new variants of the virus on – let alone the devastation it could cause in Japan.

So to paraphrase a famous sporting slogan, the Tokyo Olympics: Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National