Cancel the Olympics? Japanese people say yes, IOC says no

·13 min read

On May 14, 10 weeks before the start of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, the ones which organizers once sold as the “Recovery Games,” Kenji Utsunomiya submitted his petition. Backed by 350,000 signatures, amid a state of emergency, it arrived at Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s desk with a simple message.

Cancel the Tokyo Olympics.”

And all across a country awash in controversy, a country anything but recovered from the pandemic, millions of people seem to agree. Public opinion polls have shown that somewhere between 60 and 80% of Japanese citizens oppose the holding of the Tokyo Games this summer. Some have pressured athletes to pull out. Others have protested in streets. Athletes themselves have questioned the Games’ safety. Members of parliament have bickered about them.

Despite growing opposition, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organizing committee have repeatedly said that the Games are on. “Everything is telling us,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Wednesday, “that the Games can go ahead and will go ahead.” Organizers have revealed some of an elaborate plan to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among participants – and, crucially, throughout the host city.

“Our experts are satisfied that it can be done,” Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. The Japanese government and organizing committee agree, Pound said, that “we can do this, and we should do it.”

But a series of minor cancellations and COVID-related alterations have stimulated external concern that plans could still crumble. The traditional torch relay has been rerouted and interrupted. Dozens of Japanese towns have abandoned plans to host foreign athletes. USA Track and Field called off a pre-Games training camp in Japan. IOC president Thomas Bach recently called off a visit.

And so, among people two and three degrees removed from the IOC and organizing committee, some doubts linger about whether the Games will actually happen.

Most, to be clear, believe they likely will. Pound, who last winter spoke honestly about the prospect of postponement, said the probability is “very close to 100%.”

The question, then, is whether they should happen against the wishes of the hosts.

People against the Tokyo 2020 Olympics set to open in July, protest around Tokyo's National Stadium during an anti-Olympics demonstration Sunday, May 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
People who are against the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which are set to open in July, protest around Tokyo's National Stadium during an anti-Olympics demonstration May 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

A country on edge

The threat of COVID-19 is at the heart of the Japanese public’s uneasiness about hosting the Olympics this summer. Japan is already grappling with a surge in cases that has hampered its economy, overburdened its healthcare system and fueled frustration over a sluggish vaccine rollout.

On May 14, as Japan’s case count exceeded 6,000 for the fourth consecutive day, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expanded the state of emergency he had previously declared from six regions to nine. That means 70% of Japanese citizens must abide by restrictions that include banning eateries from serving alcohol or staying open past 8 p.m.

Although Japan’s current infection rate doesn’t come close to what the U.S. endured last winter, the Japanese healthcare system also doesn’t appear prepared to handle such an outbreak. In Japan’s hardest-hit cities, hospitals are reportedly overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Some hospitals with enough doctors and nurses have used waiting rooms and hallways to create extra bed space. Those that are understaffed have been forced to turn away severely ill patients.

Kentario Iwata, an infectious disease expert at Kobe University, told Yahoo Sports that his hospital expanded its ICU to accommodate more patients, but “the number newly diagnosed with COVID is far more than we can manage.” Norio Sugaya, director of Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama City, told Yahoo Sports the crisis is even more dire in Osaka.

“Nearly 20 patients were unable to be hospitalized and died at home,” Sugaya said. “Patients in need of oxygen are waiting to be hospitalized at home.”

While vaccinations have slowed the spread of the virus across the U.S. and Europe, only about 3% of Japanese citizens have received even one dose. Experts blame that on a few factors, from a lack of urgency after Japan’s early success combatting the virus, to a historical mistrust of immunizations, to a government slow to approve new drugs and ill-prepared to run a mass vaccination campaign.

“Achieving a high rate of vaccination was never a mission in Japan for many vaccines,” Iwata said, “and now the government is struggling to do what they have never even tried.”

The IOC expects a “large majority” of the athletes and support staff in the Olympic Village to be vaccinated, and a World Health Organization director recently expressed "confidence" that organizers "will make the right decisions regarding how best to manage the risks." Yet many of Japan’s infectious disease experts still caution against hosting tens of thousands of foreigners, who'll come into contact with some of the 78,000 local volunteers. The risk of a potential super-spreader event is a concern, as is the possibility that foreign athletes, coaches and media members could unknowingly unleash infectious new variants on the Japanese populace.

Another common frustration in Japan is the inevitability of the Olympics taking doctors, nurses, equipment and beds from everyday citizens who need them. Says Masahiro Yamagata, a Tokyo translator, tour guide and activist who opposes the Olympics: “People die due to lack of access to COVID-19 medical treatment. Why should we spare such scarce resources to athletes and journalists from other countries?”

‘We are not disposable pawns’

In late April, as the latest wave of COVID cases threatened to overwhelm Japan’s healthcare system, Tokyo Olympic organizers called for 500 nurses to volunteer to help staff this summer’s Games. The request sparked widespread anger from a Japanese medical community already stretched thin while fighting the virus.

Tens of thousands of people liked or retweeted this image of a Japanese nurse holding up a placard proclaiming, “We are not disposable pawns.”

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The head of a Tokyo hospital also created a social media stir when he posted messages on its windows denouncing the Olympics.

“Medical capacity has reached its limits. Stop the Olympics!” one sign read. Another begged, “Give us a break. The Olympics are impossible!”

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In a statement released earlier this month, the secretary general of the Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Union urged the Japanese government to focus on the pandemic, not the Olympics. “I am very upset that we insist on holding the Olympics at the expense of the lives and health of patients and nurses,” Susumu Morita said.

Satoko Itani, an assistant professor at Kansai University, alleges that the request for volunteer nurses isn't the first time Japan has prioritized the Games over the lives of its citizens. Itani accused the Japanese government of deliberately lifting state of emergency orders in time to begin the Olympic torch relay in March, creating a "dense gathering of people around Japan" and instilling a "false sense of normalcy and safety."

"I don't say the Olympics is the only problem here, but it has certainly made the situation worse," Itani told Yahoo Sports. "It will make it even worse if the Games actually occur."

Itani's cynicism underscores the mood of many Japanese citizens with the Olympics only weeks away. Most are comfortable voicing their opposition only through polling or via social media, but in recent weeks an exasperated minority has demonstrated in the streets.

As a track and field meet began inside a Tokyo stadium on May 10, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside to protest the decision to plow ahead with the Olympics. They marched around the stadium, waiving signs denouncing the Japanese government’s priorities, the soaring cost of the Olympics and the displacement of the poor.

The images of the protest were striking, but it’s Utsunomiya’s online petition to cancel the Tokyo Olympics that likely has more clout. Change.org said the petition accumulated signatures at the fastest rate ever recorded on its Japanese site.

“I do not understand the reason to hold the Olympics when our medical care system is already in a state of collapse,” one nurse commented. Wrote another commenter, “It’s impossible to host the Olympics in a country where not enough facilities and hospital beds can be provided even for domestic citizens.”

ROME, ITALY - MAY 12:  Naomi Osaka of Japan returns a forehand on day 5 of the the Internazionali BNL d’Italia match between Naomi Osaka of Japan and Jessica Pegula of USA at Foro Italico on May 12, 2021 in Rome, Italy. Sporting stadiums around Italy remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka would be one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics. But even she's conflicted about if the Games should be held. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Japanese athletes conflicted

In early May, one of Japan’s most beloved swimmers posted a flurry of tweets pleading for understanding.

Rikako Ikee won widespread admiration in her homeland last month when she battled back from a 2019 leukemia diagnosis to win the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly at Japan’s Olympic Trials. Not long after that, the 20-year-old began receiving Twitter and Instagram messages calling for her to decline the chance to swim at the Olympics or announce her opposition to holding the event in July.

Ikee expressed sympathy for those who oppose the Olympics, pointing out that she lives with “daily anxiety” about contracting the virus because leukemia puts her at greater risk of severe complications. Yet Ikee also argued that she alone “can’t change anything” by speaking out, and that it wasn’t fair to expect her to withdraw from Olympic consideration.

“I find it very painful that individual athletes are being asked to do that,” Ikee said. “I hope that everyone will warmly look over not just myself but all athletes who are doing their best regardless of what the eventual situation turns out to be.”

That even a sympathetic figure like Ikee can be a target for criticism illuminates the predicament facing high-profile Japanese athletes. Naomi Osaka, the world’s No. 2 tennis player, last week described herself as conflicted about the upcoming Olympics. During a news conference at the Italian Open, Osaka revealed that playing in an Olympics is a lifelong dream yet the safety of others also weighs on her mind.

“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," Osaka said.

Masters champ Hideki Matsuyama, who is from Shikoku Island in southern Japan, also expressed “mixed feelings” last week. Speaking before a PGA Tour event, Matsuyama told reporters he wanted to "aim for the gold" in Tokyo, but questioned if the Olympics “can really be held safely.”

“There are a rising number of infections in Japan and it's in a bad situation," Matsuyama said.

The IOC’s response

The IOC can feel the resistance. It has seen the polls, which have remained relatively consistent in opposition to the Games for months. Does it care?

“They are what they are,” Adams, the IOC spokesman, said last week. “We have to pay attention to public opinion, but not be totally driven by it.”

Pound, the longtime IOC member, said much of the public criticism, and fears of a super-spreader event, haven’t “been thought about seriously” through the lens of COVID countermeasures that organizers will implement. All athletes and key participants will be tested daily in Tokyo. Restrictions on movement and socialization, as detailed in “playbooks” set to be finalized next month, will keep most visitors out of contact with the Japanese public.

“There's been a tremendous amount of work done on the playbooks for the delegations and the teams that are coming,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.

Pound, citing experts whose advice Olympic organizers have relied upon, said: “I have more confidence in a scientifically based and up-to-date assessment of the risk than a national poll of ... largely uninformed opinions.”

“The only big question mark out there is to what extent live audiences will be able to participate,” Pound added. Organizers have already barred foreign fans, but a decision on domestic fan attendance will be made next month. “My guess is there will be some live spectators,” Pound said. “I don't think you're gonna have 100%, filled-to-capacity venues. But it might be 20%, 50%.”

Many informed experts, though, are questioning the Tokyo Games themselves. "It should be canceled, or postponed at least until we assure the safety domestically and abroad,” Iwata, the Japanese epidemiologist, said. “The atmosphere of having the Olympic Games is the most dangerous part, [and] will engender the increase of infections among citizens."

In the end, this conflict between organizers and Japanese public is less a difference of opinion, more a clash of competing interests. Japanese citizens want to quell the pandemic. The IOC wants to stage the Olympics, and believes the two agendas can coexist. Some Japanese citizens believe they can’t.

Caught between them is the Japanese government. Prime Minister Suga has batted away unrelenting pressure from citizens and opposition lawmakers, and reiterated his support for the Games. Dialogue is increasingly fraught. Politician approval rates are declining. Suga has assured the Japanese people that the government would "not put the Olympics first,” above their health. But he also recently moved to deflect responsibility.

“The IOC has the authority to decide, and the IOC has already decided to hold the Tokyo Olympics,” Suga said last month.

That’s because the IOC “owns” the Olympic Games. It signs a contract with host cities, as it did with Tokyo in 2013, and “entrusts the planning, organizing, financing and staging of the Games to the city.” But the contract, which legal experts describe as very “one-sided,” gives only the IOC the power to terminate it. The city of Tokyo could unilaterally decide to break the contract, but, according to several international sports lawyers who spoke with Yahoo Sports, doing so could cost Tokyo billions of dollars in damages.

In practice, Pound and the legal experts said, the go-or-no-go decision “would be a joint decision with the organizing committee, the Japanese government, the IOC, and the public health authorities.”

Pound acknowledged, “in the case of a difference of opinion, between whether it would be safe or not safe, the IOC would have the trump card.”

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