On 8 July, just over two weeks before the games were due to open, Japanese premier Suga Yoshihide announced that the Olympics would be held without spectators. This was the result of a rebound in coronavirus cases and a new declaration of a state of emergency in the Tokyo area, only three weeks after the end of the previous one. This was a huge blow for Suga. In fact, he looked like he had just been punched in the stomach!
The question most Japanese are asking is: why are the games going ahead at all? Opinion polls have shown up to 80% of the population favour postponement or cancellation.
Originally scheduled to be held last year, the games were postponed due to the medical risks involved. While Japan had relatively few infections then, the situation since has only worsened. Most deaths from the virus occurred in the third and fourth waves, which hit last winter and this spring.
Vaccination has been slow. At the time of writing, only around 11% of the adult population have received two vaccinations. In the fifth wave now hitting Tokyo, 30% of new cases are the more easily transmissible ‘delta’ variant.
Medical opinion has been overwhelmingly against the holding of the Olympics, with even the government’s chief medical adviser, Omi Shigeru, making his opposition clear.
The 6,000-strong Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association has officially called for the cancellation of the Olympics. Some hospitals have even been festooned with banners showing their opposition to the games.
However, the government has still not cancelled the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared that only it could decide on cancellation. The IOC is dependent on income from selling the television rights to the games. The postponement has already caused it cash flow problems. The comments of Thomas Bach and other IOC big-wigs have been greeted with anger and derision in Japan. They are seen as putting the Olympic gravy train before public health.
However, if the Japanese government had wanted to cancel it is clear that the IOC would have had little choice but to agree. But the government and Japanese businesses are heavily invested in the games.
Dentsu, the largest advertising agency, had been awarded broadcasting rights for 22 countries across Asia by the IOC. It has a very close relationship with the ruling party, providing it with funds as well as enjoying a monopoly on the party’s public relations work.
While spectators from abroad have already been banned, Suga argued strongly for the games to go ahead with spectators from Japan. This would have provided a boost for tourism and many other business sectors. It is estimated that holding the Olympics without spectators will mean a $23 billion hit to profits.
The Organising Committee even wanted to allow the sale of alcoholic drinks at the games. Ironically, major sponsor Asahi Breweries opposed the idea. Its regular customers, thousands of family-owned restaurants and bars, were forbidden or restricted from selling alcohol under the state of emergency regulations. To have allowed an exception for the Olympics would have caused outrage.
The government staked its reputation on holding the Olympics. The 1964 Tokyo games coincided with a period of rapid growth in Japan. After 20 years of economic stagnation, the Abe and Suga governments had sought to use the games to show that a revitalised ‘Japan was back’. Running into trouble with the pandemic, the rhetoric changed to how ‘the Olympics would prove mankind’s triumph over Covid-19’.
Holding the Olympics is an enormous political gamble for the government. In recent Tokyo assembly elections, the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party failed to win a majority. The reformist Communist Party, which called for the cancellation of the games, and the capitalist opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, calling for cancellation or postponement, both made gains.
Tokyo First, a party built around the governor of Tokyo, Koike Yuriko, which called for the Olympics to go ahead but without spectators, lost fewer seats than expected. Post-election polls showed that discontent with the government’s handling of the pandemic and the Olympics was a major factor.
Holding the games will mean nearly 80,000 people (athletes, IOC officials, media staff, etc) entering Japan and then returning to their own countries.
The government and IOC’s protective ‘Olympic bubble’ is a myth. Already there have been cases of infections among athletes and workers at the Olympic Centre. The IOC’s lack of faith in its ability to ensure this is revealed by the waiver which they are asking athletes to sign, freeing the IOC of any legal liability for injury or death from participation in the games, including from Covid-19.
Specialists have warned of the dangers of a super-spreader event with new variants developing in the ‘Olympic Petri dish’.
The decision to go ahead shows a reckless disregard for public health. While in a socialist society sport would be used to improve and promote good health, under capitalism it has become one more source of profits, whatever the human cost.