Last March, the highest caliber athletes around the world were forced to put their dreams on hold. The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo could not have taken place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the official announcement still arrived as a shock to the thousands of athletes vying for the chance to represent their countries and prove themselves on the world stage. Many faced a major crossroads — give up on their dreams, or train through at least another year filled with uncertainty. Some retired early. Others were forced away from their sports due to lockdowns or declines in their mental or physical health. Many, however, stayed the course, adapting to their circumstances and pressing onwards.
After an incredibly difficult year, everyone may look toward the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as a source of fortitude and national pride. Everyone, that is, except the people of Japan.
Olympic Trials events are taking place or have just concluded in nations across the globe, as rosters fill with vaccinated athletes who possess golden dreams. These Games feel particularly significant in countries like the United States, in which the pandemic is slowly waning and national heroes are rising to compete once again. Athletes both young and old are starting to become household names, and people are beginning to wager on soccer matches between popular rivals and badminton games between relatively unknown competitors.
For the rest of the world, the Olympics, while exciting, are far from the forefront of the conversation. While people in the United States and some European countries have begun to congregate indoors mask-free and resume pre-pandemic routines, many countries are still facing rounds of lockdowns, low vaccination rates, and high levels of community spread.
Across the Pacific, Japan is still being ravaged by the coronavirus, and has a mere 10 percent of its population fully vaccinated. Compare this to the United States, which has fully vaccinated 45.7 percent of the population. This slow vaccine rollout has led to many Japanese people vocalizing their frustration with both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government for moving forward with the Games. The IOC acts as a governing and regulatory body for the Olympics, selecting host cities and overseeing the planning and development of the Games. A May poll in Asahi, a large Japanese newspaper, found that around 83 percent of Japanese citizens opposed the Games being held in Tokyo, illustrating the extent of the general population’s trepidation.
A key factor in this discontent was the announcement of the partnership between the IOC, Pfizer, and BioNTech; an agreement which expedited vaccinations for Olympic athletes in Japan and other nations where doses are otherwise relatively hard to come by. The IOC reported this month that around 80 percent of Tokyo-bound athletes have been vaccinated or are in the process of becoming vaccinated.
These logistical issues with vaccine rollout and the controversial distribution partnership also hold real-world repercussions.. Athletes are “skipping the line” at the expense of citizens who are still at great risk of contracting the Coronavirus.
The disconnect between the Japanese citizens and the Japanese government on whether to host the Olympics notwithstanding, the potential economic benefits of the Games are an attractive opportunity to lawmakers seeking a reopening of the economy and an influx of tourists. The recent announcement that Olympic venues would be opened to 10,000 domestic visitors—while chastised by safety-minded citizens on one extreme and financially-focused organizers on the other—is perhaps the happiest medium possible. It is not, however, going to flood Tokyo with the economic and cultural revitalization that cities seek when spending significant time and money into crafting a hosting bid to the IOC.
The IOC puts countries through a rigorous selection process when deciding which candidate will serve as the host for an Olympic Games. Cities submit a bid close to a decade prior to the Games that they would like to host. Oftentimes, bids come from many countries across the world. Cities in varying levels of development bid for a variety of reasons, from seeking an economic boost to desiring positive public opinion.
Bids used to be cut in a series of rounds, so many cities spent time and money to craft a well-researched pitch only to be turned away. As of 2014, the process has become less severe. Even if not selected for the Games for which they initially submitted a bid, applications are kept as potential hosts of future Games.
Tokyo was selected to host the 2020 Olympics in September 2013. Over the following seven years, the city began building expensive infrastructure and promoting the Games to garner interest from Japanese citizens and the global community at large. Prior to the pandemic, the Olympics were a major international event: a pilgrimage for loud, proud, sports-obsessed individuals with the resources to buy expensive tickets and lodging in order to witness the pinnacle of athletics.
Next month, that electric environment will almost certainly be absent in Tokyo. The athletes will still be there, attempting to break records and outrace competitors after their grueling five-year training cycle. As will countless cameras, broadcasting these feats to televisions large and small across the globe. In the shadow of the pandemic, however, the stands will look eerily desolate. The throngs of bellowing fans will have evaporated into a smattering of nervous coaches, focused broadcasters, and a few awestruck audience members.
Because vaccination rates for citizens are so low, the economic boost from spectator attendance will be miniscule, and the desire of the Japanese government to go forward full steam with the Olympics is somewhat counterproductive, at least for their own sake. By prioritizing athlete vaccinations, many citizens will be unable to attend and help offset the massive infrastructure investments that made these Games possible in the first place. The incurred costs, estimated to be upwards of 17 billion USD, may fall as a particularly heavy burden on the already exasperated people of Japan, particularly because no Olympics have turned a profit since those in Los Angeles in 1984. Perhaps moving the games to Florida, as suggested by the state’s Chief Financial Officer to the IOC, would allow Tokyo to host in full force in the near future, but time seems to have run out.
While things look to be proceeding with little concern by the government, these Games will be entirely different from a typical Olympics, possibly at the expense of the people of Japan. As the Games approach, the picture becomes clearer and clearer: The risks of hosting may far outweigh the rewards.