TOKYO, Japan — Public sentiment in Japan has been generally opposed to holding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, partly based on fears the coronavirus will spike as almost 100,000 people — athletes and others — enter for both events.
The Japanese medical community is largely against it. The government's main medical adviser Dr. Shigeru Omi has said it's “abnormal” to hold the Olympics during a pandemic. So far, only 5% of Japanese are fully vaccinated.
The medical journal The Lancet has raised questions about the health risks and criticized the World Health Organization and other health bodies for not taking a clear stand. The New England Journal of Medicine has said the IOC's decision to proceed “is not informed by the best scientific evidence.”
The second-largest selling newspaper in Japan, the Asahi Shimbun, has called for the Olympics to be canceled. So have other regional newspapers.
Still, they are going ahead. How have the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga been able to bypass strong opposition?
At the core is the Host City Contract that gives the IOC the sole authority to cancel. If Japan cancels, it would have to compensate the IOC. Of course, the IOC is unlikely to sue a host city. So any deal would be worked out behind the scenes.
And there are billions at stake. Japan has officially spent $15.4 billion but government audits suggest it’s twice that much. Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Inc., a key player in landing the corruption-tainted bid in 2013, has raised more than $3 billion from local sponsors.
Estimates suggest a cancellation could cost the IOC $3 billion-$4 billion in lost broadcast rights income. Broadcast income and sponsors account for 91% of the IOC income, and American network NBCUniversal provides about 40% of the IOC's total income.
Fans from abroad have been banned already, and a decision on local fans attending Olympic venues should come as early as next week.
Associated Press sought perspectives from inside and outside Japan with the Olympics set to open on July 23.
“It’s a bit like a gambler who already has lost too much. Pulling out of it now will only confirm the huge losses made, but carrying on you can still cling to the hope of winning big and taking it all back. It’s true that public opinion is unlikely to be kind even if Suga decides to cancel at the last minute. He might as well take the chance and hope for the best by going ahead with it. At least there is some chance that he can claim the games to be a success — just by doing it — and saturating the media with pride and glory might help him turn the negative opinion around.”
—Koichi Nakano, political scientist, Sophia University
“The IOC carries a brand that is powerful. Athletes from around the world coming together to compete in peace is a heart-tugging draw. It takes an entertainment event and infuses it with a certain level of piety and awe. Who is against peace? With this “Olympism” as a goal, it has snagged corporate sponsors willing to pay lots of money. Therefore, the IOC has the leverage to exact contract terms very favorable to it and it certainly has done that in this case. The fact that only the IOC can formally decide to pull the plug on the games — even in the case of unforeseeable health events -- is testament to this.”
—Mark Conrad, lawyer, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University
“The host city contract hands over all the power to the IOC. The Olympic industry has had 120-plus years to win hearts and minds around the globe, with obvious success. In the age of the internet, their PR controls the message and protects the brand 24/7. The IOC is also beyond the reach of any oversight agency, including the governments of host countries. It can violate a country’s human rights protections with immunity, including athletes’ right to access domestic courts of law.”
—Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, sociologist, author “The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach"
"Based on what I am hearing, people within the government have been given their instructions to make the games happen, and that is their singular focus right now — for better or for worse. Their hope is to get through the games with as few missteps as possible. Politicians may well be aware of the risk they are taking but hope that once the games begin the Japanese public will persevere ‘for the good of Japan’ and forget how we got there.”
—Aki Tonami, political scientist, University of Tsukuba
"The IOC is an elitist club that garners support from other elites and people — and countries — that aspire to joining the elite. From a sports perspective, the IOC represents the custodian of the exclusive medals that athletes in numerous sports aspire to, acts as the chief promoter of the mythology of the healing power of sport, and the organization that most international sports federations and national Olympic committees are reliant on for funding.”
—John Horne, sociologist, Waseda Univeristy, author with Garry Whannel of “Understanding the Olympics”
"Politically, the opposition is so weak, the government can do pretty much anything it wants. Although a disastrous Olympics would damage the LDP’s credibility, the party likely feels safe because a majority of the public doubts the capability of the opposition to govern. The government may be hoping that once the games start, public opinion will turn. At the very least, producing a distraction, and at most, perhaps a rally round the flag effect.”
—Gill Steel, political scientist, Doshisha University
“You notice how nobody seems to be in charge. You have all these different entities: the Tokyo organizing committee, the Japanese Olympic Committee, the Prime Minister’s office, the Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike, the Japan Sports Agency, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Suga is asked in the Diet about canceling the games and says it’s not his responsibility. Nobody wants to lose face. You saw the same in the run up to the 1964 Games. In fact, it wasn’t until Feb. 11, 1963 — some 600 days before the opening ceremony — that Japan finally found somebody willing to accept the presidency of the local organizing committee."
—Robert Whiting, author of several books on Japan including the latest “Tokyo Junkie”
“A lot of the opposition is shallow and movable, though of course that’s contingent on the Olympics actually working out. There will be a lot of people (broadcasters, etc.) invested in trying to make it look like a good show, so I think they’ll have the winds at their back if there’s not an appreciable spike in COVID deaths or any heat-related tragedies for the athletes.”
—David Leheny, political scientist, Waseda University
"If it turns out there is a surge in coronavirus patients and it becomes a catastrophe, that’s not the responsibility of the IOC. It’s the Japanese government that will be stuck with the responsibility.”
—Ryu Homma, author, former advertising agency executive