Specter of Olympic cancellation hangs over Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan—Japan holds subdued celebrations Thursday to mark one year until the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with the coronavirus pandemic raising stark concerns about whether the Games will go ahead.

A woman wearing a face mask and holding an umbrella stands in the rain in front of a countdown clock for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo on July 23, 2020. AFP
In Tokyo, which should have been buzzing with thousands of athletes and fans by now, organizers will hold a small event at an empty National Stadium after the public were barred following a new surge in infections.

Olympic countdown boards have been quietly reset around the capital, where digital signs display the message “365 days to go to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics”.

Despite the setbacks and the downbeat mood, Japanese and Olympic officials have not wavered from the message that the Games will go on, serving as a symbol of the world’s recovery from the virus.

“They will be the first worldwide gathering after the coronavirus,” International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach insisted last week.

However, experts and officials—including Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—have raised the prospect of the first peace-time cancellation of the multi-billion dollar Games if the pandemic is not under control by next year.

The historic decision in March to delay the Games came as the real scale of the pandemic was emerging and countries imposed lockdowns that threw training into chaos and forced the cancellation of qualifiers and test events.

Since then, restrictions have been eased across much of Europe as infections and deaths from the virus decline, but elsewhere – including in the United States, Brazil and India—the disease remains rampant.

And in places where lockdowns have ended or countermeasures been eased, the virus has often come roaring back, raising questions about the feasibility of an event involving tens of thousands of people arriving from around the world.

Public sentiment dips

Public sentiment in Japan also appears less than optimistic, with two polls in July showing the majority of Japanese think the Games should be postponed again or cancelled altogether.

Only somewhere between one quarter and a third of respondents in the polls thought the Games should open as scheduled on July 23, 2021.

“I’m afraid about the situation even next year,” said Sachiko Ahunwan, a 50-year-old department store employee. “It’s unclear how far the coronavirus can But Japanese and Olympic officials have insisted that another delay is impossible. The unprecedented one-year postponement has already caused a host of logistical and financial headaches.

One major obstacle has been cleared, with Tokyo 2020 confirming this month that it has secured all the venues originally contracted for the Games.

Winning agreement from stadiums that were booked up long after the original Olympic date was considered among the most difficult challenges organizers faced. 

Topics: Japan , Tokyo Olympics , International Olympic Committee , Thomas Bach , Shinzo Abe
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