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Post Tokyo Olympics: July...or Never? From Edward Mears
Created by John Eipper on 02/03/21 3:07 AM

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Tokyo Olympics: July...or Never? From Edward Mears (John Eipper, USA, 02/03/21 3:07 am)

Edward Mears writes:

My thanks to Ed Jajko (February 1st) for his most informative update on Japan's New Year's sumo tournament.

Despite living in Japan for some time now and being a sports fanatic, my knowledge on sumo was lacking and Ed's post helped me better understand the tournament and rituals. I'll be sure to pay closer attention next time it is on TV or next time I can make a trip to the Kokugikan.

As for the Tokyo Olympics, I have been following this very closely over the past several months and it has been a topic of hot debate with my friends and colleagues here in Japan. As most may be aware, the Tokyo Olympics were originally scheduled to be held in July of 2020 but were postponed one year due to COVID-19 and are now due to commence on July 23rd, 2021. Since the decision to postpone last March, Japan's LDP under the leadership of Prime Minister Suga along with other stakeholders have been adamant that the games will be held "as planned." Stressing that no further postponements or cancellations are possible, the government has taken great pains to present a unified front on holding the Olympic games. It has been striking to see the government's level of certainty that the games will go forward in light of surging COVID-19 case numbers and dangerous new variants of the disease, not only in Japan but throughout the rest of the world. Talk of a contingency plan has been entirely non-existent despite recent general opinion polls stating that a large majority (80%) of the Japanese public would like to see the Games either postponed again or canceled.

The main forces at play behind the government's commitment to hold the games are the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Supporting these organizing partners are a bevy of corporate sponsors and other stakeholders such as media outlets and the prolific Japanese advertising agency, Dentsu, which plays a critical role behind the scenes coordinating broadcast rights and sponsorships. These organizations, companies and media outlets have spent millions if not billions on preparations for the games and need to show shareholders a return on their investment, which would ideally be realized through sponsorship activation around the games (ads on TV and throughout Tokyo), ticket sales and increased consumer spending by the Japanese populous and foreign visitors during the nearly month-long event. The established logic for hosting the games has been that despite steep price tags, host countries stand to profit handsomely from a surge of foreign visitors and international good will that the games provide. Infrastructure projects will generate jobs and foreign investment. The games are also a significant force for soft power projection, as the best of the host country's culture and people are on display to the world.

Cracks in this orthodoxy have begun to appear in recent iterations of the Games. Rio de Janeiro spent upwards of USD $13 billion while only netting approximately USD $300 million from the economic activity of overseas visitors. Many of the brand new venues constructed for Rio 2016 now sit abandoned in various states of disrepair. The price tag also continues to balloon: the Tokyo Olympics will be the most expensive Games on record, with an official estimated price tag of USD $15.4 billion as of December 2020 and the costs are still increasing. There have been several audits by the Japanese government which have shown that the actual cost of holding the games is at least USD $25 billion, in stark contrast to the original estimate of USD $7.5 billion in 2013.

Further complicating these changing dynamics for Tokyo is COVID-19 and the unprecedented travel restrictions and quarantines that have ground global air travel to a halt. The prospect of a Tokyo Games packed with foreign fans is looking increasingly dim despite the vaccine rollout: Japanese flagship airline ANA has just announced that it will reduce its international flight capacity by a further 50% through the end of October, while New Zealand has said it does not expect to reopen its borders until 2022 at the earliest. Other countries are implementing stronger border controls (including Japan) in response to outbreaks of more highly contagious forms of COVID-19. If the Games are held at all, it is likely that only a limited number of Japanese fans will be allowed into venues and even domestic attendance only remains in question.

The slow vaccine rollout further threatens the ability for the Japanese public to attend the games (if allowed) and raises serious ethical questions about vaccinating elite athletes ahead of some of the world's most needy and vulnerable. Japan is far behind the rest of the world in vaccine rollout, with only the first 10,000 medical workers scheduled to be vaccinated by the end of this month. Vaccination of the general population will not even begin until June or July at the absolute earliest.  However a shortage of suitable freezers threatens to delay this timeline even further. On top of this, Japan expects nearly 15,000 Olympians and Paralympians to come to Japan for the Games, along with an equally sizeable press corps, officials and support staff. The complexities of vaccinating and/or ensuring social distancing and other mitigation efforts (in lieu of vaccination) for such a large contingent are seemingly unmanageable. Although American sports leagues have been able to compete in "bubbles" and/or with limited fans, the numbers and timeframe (a little more than two weeks) involved for the Olympics make this mission impossible. Further still, many countries who may otherwise want to participate in the Games may not be able to do so due to conditions at home, especially in the developing world where vaccine rollout may be years away. There is also clear competitive advantage for athletes from the most advanced countries who have found ways to keep up their training during the pandemic, while those from less fortunate countries have had to forego training and lead-in events. In an age of rising populist anger, these are risky optics.

All of this is to say, if the Olympics are going to be held without in-venue fans, without a full contingent of participating countries and without foreign visitors, what is the point? For many Olympic athletes, participation in the athletic events is of course the primary goal, but a close second is time spent exploring the host country, interacting with fellow athletes and the local population via events and appearances and participating in other Olympic festivities such as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Tokyo has already said that athletes will likely be placed in a bubble during competition and asked to leave shortly after completing their athletic events. The number of participants at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies has been significantly curtailed. Images of empty seats and a muted host city atmosphere do not resonate well with the inclusive and communal vision of the Olympic movement. While the Japanese government has tried to recharacterize the games as a moment to celebrate global victory over the pandemic, the television broadcast and scenes from Tokyo will likely send a very different message of corporate greed, privilege and disconnected priorities.

One convincing argument for holding the games even in a reduced form, however, is that fans of the Olympics will still tune in to the broadcasts and it could serve as a much-needed distraction and cathartic release after more than a year and a half of life under lockdown. In fact some have argued that lockdowns may result in even higher viewership as people all over the world continue to spend more time at home. Ratings results from American sports leagues have shown quite the opposite, however: all of the major sports (baseball, football, hockey and basketball) that resumed play during the pandemic while the lockdown was at its height suffered considerable ratings drops despite good story lines and ideal large-market matchups: viewership for the NBA Finals (LAL-MIA) was down 51%, the NHL Stanley Cup Finals (DAL-TB) down 61%, the College Football National Championship (ALA-OSU) down 27% and the World Series (LAD-TB) was the lowest rated in history (9.72 million viewers across six games), down 30% from last year. This does not bode well for the broadcast success of the Tokyo games, which has the added disadvantage of significant time-zone differences with US and European markets.

In light of all of this, another postponement here appears to make the most sense. Many of these concerns around COVID-19 and travel restrictions will likely have receded by next July and the Olympics could look and feel like an actual Olympics instead of an asterisk-laden exhibition for the most wealthy participants played out in sterile arenas. Despite this obvious resolution, the Japanese government and the organizing committees have remained firm that the only option is to proceed as planned. The ballooning costs are probably the primary reason a delay is not on the table, as billions more would be required in the event of a postponement and a young Japanese government under the faltering leadership of first-time Prime Minister Suga is unlikely to commit to that. Suga's approval ratings are already abysmal due to his administration's floundering and non-sensical COVID-19 response: while urging Japanese citizens to stay home the government was also offering sizeable travel subsidies to domestic travelers. Overall infection rate has remained very low compared to the rest of the world, however the reliability of the official numbers has been questioned. The government has made it extremely difficult to get tested as only those with multiple demonstrable symptoms can be tested at hospitals, and private testing is almost prohibitively expensive at approximately USD $300 per test. Some death statistics apparently do not count a death as COVID-19 related if other co-morbidities are present. Further, results from private testing facilities are not included in the overall infection statistics making it very difficult to gauge the true extent of the infection in Japan.

To be clear, even if underreported, the scale of the outbreak here in Japan is nowhere near the scale as seen in the United States and other parts of the world, and I do believe that this is one of the safest places to wait out the COVID-19 storm. Nevertheless, to proceed with a global event like the Olympics while the majority of the world is still reeling from the virus and where the Games themselves will only proceed in limited fashion seems shortsighted and potentially dangerous. With the costs of another one-year postponement likely prohibitive, the best "face-saving" way forward here would be to cancel the Tokyo games and award either the 2024 games (pushing Paris to 2028 and LA to 2032) or the 2032 games to Tokyo, if they want it. There may in fact be significant behind-the-scenes momentum towards this solution: late last week an unidentified "ruling coalition member" of the Japanese government (likely a Diet member from the Komeito political party) told The Times of London that this was the likely end-game and this sourcing was corroborated by Reuters. Leaks to foreign press are a rarity in Japan, but both The Times and Reuters were confident in their reporting and stuck by their story, despite outrage from Japanese politicians and the domestic press.

In any event, I expect that we will get an answer sometime in the coming weeks. There are several meetings scheduled between TMG/TOCOG and the IOC this week and next, and the torch relay is scheduled to begin in March. I believe the start of the torch relay is the latest that a decision will be made, given the enormous preparatory work that will be needed ahead of July. My money is on a cancellation and Suga will have to fall on that sword as he is brushed out of office (Kono Taro is the most likely to take his place), but there seems to be a tiny glimmer of hope that the Games can be held in recent press reports. So I guess its just wait and see. While a cancellation would be awful for Japan, the athletes and Olympic fans worldwide, it seems more and more inevitable. If the Games are ultimately canceled, I do hope that the IOC moves heaven and earth to give Tokyo the next crack at the Summer games in 2024 if they want it. I am also worried that if the Tokyo Games are canceled, Beijing (2022) will have the potential privilege of hosting the world's first "post-Corona" Olympics (though I suspect this may be cancelled as well and/or boycotted).

PS: In light of the recent discussion on C-rations and MREs, a few months back I became engrossed with a YouTube channel that is dedicated to sourcing and eating MREs from all over the world. The host of the channel prepares and eats the MREs on camera, including many "vintage" MREs from the Vietnam War, WWII, and what has to be the oldest MRE ever eaten//a British Emergency Ration from 1899-1902. Here is a link to his channel:


And here are some links to videos of some of the rations (I think) mentioned on the site recently:

1964 Vietnam MCI C Ration Ham & Lima Beans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIn5AYR1t-s

Pre-1972 C-Ration Accessory Pack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhL01J_cRRk

1899-1902 British Emergency Ration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZoHuMwZwTk&t=22s

1863 American Civil War Hardtack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ga5JrN9DrVI

JE comments:  Eddie, you've shown us another WAIS Effect moment:  We both independently discovered Steve the "Rations Guy."  Although Steve's videos lack the smells, he describes them most colorfully.  We've already discussed Ham and Limas, but they are a delicacy compared to the Boer War-era "concentrated beef."  No wonder the British had such a hard go of it in South Africa.

And you give us a splendid analysis of the political situation and "hard decisions" leading up to Tokyo '21.  At this point, I see no possibility for the Olympics to open in five months' time.  Games or not, Japan's government will probably be faulted either way--especially for that nation's glacial rollout of the vaccine.

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