The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tokyo is learning that the only force stronger than a pandemic is the Olympics

Olympic organizers say the Games must go on, so they will

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper called Wednesday for the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled, but organizers say they’re going forward despite a coronavirus crisis in Japan. (Kimimasa Mayama/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Sports are never simply sports. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics, postponed for a year because of the coronavirus, are a stark reminder of this ruthless truth.

In Japan, the population has turned against the Olympics. One poll found a whopping 83 percent opposes staging the Games this summer. Nevertheless, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Tokyo Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach insist that the show must go on. IOC spokesman Mark Adams went as far as to say, “We listen but won’t be guided by public opinion.”

Two clashing dynamics sit beneath the news churning out of Tokyo: an Olympics-induced state of exception and a coronavirus-driven state of emergency. Who wins that discourse battle may determine the fate of these increasingly controversial Olympic Games.

The Olympics always jump-start a state of exception where long-standing political norms do not apply. When cities agree to host the Games, they create special laws designed to protect the Olympic brand and sporting spectacle, and to stimulate otherwise unfathomable real estate deals.

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In London, host of the 2012 Summer Games, a special Olympic law made it illegal to provide goods or services that combined words like “2012” or “Games” with “London,” “medals,” or “gold.” The Games brought monomaniacal brand management: Five-ring enforcers even prevented a cafe in Plymouth from selling “Olympic breakfasts” and its “flaming torch breakfast baguette.”

Olympic exceptionalism also kick-started militarized security measures, including surface-to-air missiles ratcheted to the roof of an apartment complex to fend off terrorist attacks. “I didn’t bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport,” admitted then-Mayor Ken Livingstone. “I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End.” This is the Olympic state of exception in action.

For the Tokyo Games, Japanese legislators pushed ambitious anti-terrorism legislation through parliament, creating a slew of fresh crimes such as a curiously specific law banning the activist tactic of sit-ins challenging the construction of apartment buildings. The U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy said Japan’s government had used “the psychology of fear” to ram through “defective” legislation. Olympic organizers are also installing facial recognition systems at all venues, even though they perpetuate racial bias.

Meanwhile, Tokyo developers leveraged the Olympic state of exception to relax longtime height restrictions on buildings in the area surrounding the National Stadium. In 1970, city officials established a 15-meter height limit in deference to Meiji-era imperial structures. But to accommodate the Olympic stadium, lawmakers raised the height to 80 meters in 2013, a huge boon for well-positioned developers.

When Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins noted that “Japan didn’t surrender its sovereignty when it agreed to host the Olympics,” she was technically correct. But the state of exception brought on by the Games chips away at Japan’s sovereignty, as it does with all Olympic hosts. Suga made this clear last month when he came under pressure to cancel the Games. “The IOC has the authority to decide,” he said.

He’s right. Just look at the host city contract that Tokyo signed with the IOC. As is the Olympic custom, the city of Tokyo and Olympic organizers put themselves on the hook for cost overruns as well as “all damages, costs and liabilities of any nature, direct and indirect” that emerge from a breach of any part of the agreement. And yet, “the IOC may in its sole discretion take legal action” against Tokyo and local organizers “as the IOC deems fit.” The contract also states that if an irreconcilable disagreement arises within “the Olympic family,” then “such dispute shall be submitted to the IOC for final resolution.”

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The German jurist Carl Schmitt, an early theorist of the state of exception, famously wrote, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” For Schmitt, the state of exception afforded the powerful “the monopoly to decide.” With the Olympics, the IOC enjoys such a monopoly. An addendum to the host city contract makes it crystal clear that the IOC is the ultimate sovereign power when it comes to making “a significant change in the overall scope of the Games.”

Any lingering doubts that the IOC was the honcho of last resort surely were dispelled in late 2019, when the IOC unilaterally relocated the marathon and walking events from Tokyo to Sapporo to address heat concerns. The move rankled local elected officials. Despite Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s bitter protestations, she was forced to accept the IOC’s “monopoly to decide.”

This monopoly was thrown into sharp focus again last week, when IOC Vice President John Coates, who oversees the Tokyo 2020 coordination commission, stated that the Olympics would take place even if Tokyo were under a state-of-emergency order and local medical professionals recommended against staging the Games.

Today, much of Japan is indeed living under a state of emergency, recently extended through the end of May. Covid rates are surging in the host city, with variants cropping up at an alarming rate. Less than 4 percent of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. More than 720,000 people in Japan have contracted covid-19, and more than 12,000 have died. Although Japan’s covid-19 caseload is much smaller than in the United States, Brazil and India — three countries that plan to send athletes to Tokyo — it’s high compared to its Asian neighbors. The media in Japan reports that the state of emergency order probably will be extended. Earlier this week, the U.S. government issued a do-not-travel warning for Japan because of the country’s increase in coronavirus cases. This raises a big question: If U.S. health experts do not deem it safe to travel to Japan, does it make sense to send 79,000 Olympic personnel from around the world there?

Japanese medical professionals vehemently oppose the Games. The Tokyo Medical Practitioners’ Association, about 6,000 members strong, called for cancellation of the Olympics. Kentaro Iwata, a doctor and infectious-disease specialist at Kobe University Hospital, stated, “Most health workers say even thinking about the Olympics is just ridiculous … We are really fighting a life-or-death situation.”

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One hospital director in Tokyo posted placards on the building with slogans such as, “Medical capacity has reached its limits. Stop the Olympics!” Susumu Morita, the secretary general of the Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Unions, vented: “I am furious at the insistence on staging the Olympics despite the risk to patients’ and nurses’ health and lives.”

The Olympic torch relay — designed to generate excitement about the upcoming Games, with torch runners zigzagging the country — has not inspired confidence: Numerous people working with the relay have tested positive for the coronavirus. Moreover, the event only features domestic participants and a mere fraction of the 11,000 Olympic athletes who will arrive in Japan from more than 200 countries, plus tens of thousands more in support staff.

Japan’s pandemic state of emergency provides a historic challenge to the Olympic state of exception. When the IOC’s Coates was asked whether any scenario existed that would lead to cancellation or further postponement, he was blunt: “No, there’s not.” But the struggle between the Olympic state of exception and the coronavirus state of emergency continues, with only weeks until the Games are slated to begin. For now, the Olympics are superseding the virus as well as the will of the Japanese people. But if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that prediction is a tricky business.