Kobayashi’s ouster was hardly the only controversial exit in the buildup to the Games, as my colleagues wrote: “It’s been a string of disclosures, dismissals and apologies: from the former president of the organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, complaining that he felt women talk too much at meetings, to the Opening Ceremonies’ creative director Hiroshi Sasaki suggesting a plus-size woman appear dressed as an ‘Olympig,’ or its music composer, Keigo Oyamada, being exposed for bullying classmates with disabilities.”
Meanwhile, Japan’s political leadership is also feeling the heat. The Olympics were meant to serve as a 21st-century showcase for the Asian economic giant. But dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government has grown amid the slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines and a recent surge in infections that prompted a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo. No spectators will be able to attend the Games, while fears grow that the arrival of athletes from around the world could further the spread.
Japanese officials and International Olympic Committee organizers vouch for their stringent protocols in place for the more than 15,000 athletes and 70,000 officials, support staff and media members arriving for the Games. Still, dozens of arrivals have tested positive for the coronavirus. Shigeru Omi, Japan’s top covid-19 adviser, said last month that it was simply “not normal” for a country to stage the Games in the middle of a pandemic.
The focus understandably falls on the role of the IOC, which determines whether the Games can be canceled and has a financial interest — to the tune of billions of dollars — in them going ahead. “The host city contract Tokyo signed — and the one L.A. signed to host the 2028 Games — states that only the IOC can cancel the Games,” wrote political scientist Jules Boykoff in the Los Angeles Times. “In Japan, the contract’s tremendous powers included an ability to transmogrify the elected leader of a sovereign state into a mere supplicant.”
Instead of being able to use the occasion to celebrate Japan’s place in the world, Suga had to go on the defensive, denying that Japan was under pressure from the IOC to stage an event that had already been postponed by a year. “We raised our hands and we sought the Olympics because we wanted to do it,” he said in an interview published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal. “If they tried to force something on me, I’d kick it right back at them.”
There’s the possibility — once utterly remote — that Japanese voters could kick Suga out of power in parliamentary elections later this year. His ruling center-right party and its allies failed to win a majority earlier this month in Tokyo assembly elections, which are often seen as a national bellwether. “While hosting the Olympics might allow an unpopular leader to boost his support in normal circumstances, voters this time may not reward the government for pushing ahead,” noted The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. “Axing the Games would have created a huge financial liability and a different set of political risks, but about 40 percent of Japan’s public still believes the Games should be canceled entirely.”
The public mood in Japan reflects a broader global souring on the Olympics. This week, the IOC awarded the 2032 Games to the Australian city of Brisbane without a rival bid. For many countries, the enterprise is proving too costly — Japan may end up spending more than three or four times as much hosting the Olympics than its original forecast of a little more than $7 billion. Then there are the social side effects, from the clearing out of impoverished communities in Rio de Janeiro and Beijing to the albatross of Olympic stadium projects and venues that go unused after the tournament and saddle their hosts with debt.
Some commentators have called for the Olympics — or, to be more blunt, the IOC’s financial boondoggle — to be scrapped altogether. More temperate critics suggest a scenario that would see the Summer Games staged only in Greece, the competition’s birthplace. “The Olympics are a Greek invention that express Greek ideals about the grace and beauty in physical prowess,” Timothy Noah wrote in Washington Monthly, arguing that the Mediterranean nation should receive international funding and support to host the events. “These ideals are respected the world round, which is why nations from across the globe participate. They’d be no less inclined to participate if the Olympics stayed put in Greece.”
For now, the Olympics are Japan’s burden. And beyond the risks already posed by the pandemic, analysts point to the long-standing threat of disaster facing the archipelago nation. “The chance on any given day of a major earthquake is very small but it’s not zero,” Robert Geller, seismologist and emeritus professor of the University of Tokyo, told Reuters, warning that an emergency scenario in which athletes and Olympics staff had to shelter in place together could fuel a new outbreak. “People in Japan who work on disaster prevention are actually worried about that a lot,” he added. “If you have another disaster on top of covid, everything is worse.”