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SITUATION UPDATE 22 June, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Tokyo remains committed to hosting the Olympic Games despite COVID-19 concerns

Leanne Self

Tokyo to host the Olympics and the Paralympic Games despite opposition from health officials, local businesses and the general public

Summary

  • Tokyo is scheduled to host the 2020 Summer Olympics from 23 July and the Paralympic Games from 24 August, despite opposition from health officials, local businesses and the general public.
  • The country's improving epidemiological situation has prompted the government to lift the state of emergency and allow up to 10,000 domestic spectators to attend Olympic events.
  • International spectators are barred from attending the Games and the organisers have released so-called ‘playbooks’ which illustrate a series of COVID-19 restrictions that athletes and participants must adhere to.
  • Health experts have warned the Games could lead to the emergence of an “Olympic” variant of COVID-19. This could have significant implications for Japan where only 7.3% of its population has been fully vaccinated.
  • Should the Games go ahead, the potential financial cost of hosting seemingly overshadows the revenue they could generate; however, cancelling the Tokyo Olympics could lead to significant financial costs and legal implications.
  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that Olympic events may be held without spectators should the COVID-19 situation in Japan deteriorate considerably.

Situation

After being delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan's capital Tokyo is scheduled to host the 2020 Summer Olympics between 23 July and 8 August, and the Paralympic Games between 24 August and 5 September. As the Olympic Games approach, the country is continuing to grapple with a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, which as of 22 June has brought the country’s total case numbers to 785,287 and associated death toll to 14,423. However, in recent weeks, daily case numbers have been steadily declining, with a seven-day average of 1,400 new registered infections compared to more than 6,000 in mid-May.

As cases continue to decline nationwide, the Japanese authorities decided to lift the country's third declared state of emergency from 20 June in most prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka, and has replaced it with a series of "quasi-emergency" measures until 11 July. The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has acknowledged public anxiety regarding the Games and recently assured that the Olympics can be held “safely and securely”. Japanese health experts have stated that in order to hold the Games “safely”, Tokyo’s daily infection rate should be below 100. However, on 22 June, the city's health authorities registered 435 new infections.

Strict border and entry restrictions for Japan remain in place and officials have maintained a decision announced on 20 March to ban international spectators from attending the Games. After talks involving the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee (TOC) and officials from Japan’s government, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), it was decided on 21 June that up to 10,000 Japanese spectators will be allowed to attend Olympic events provided that crowds do not exceed 50% of a venue’s capacity. However, the decision contradicts recent recommendations provided by health experts who said that holding the Games without any spectators was the "least risky" and most desirable option. A decision on domestic spectators at the Paralympic Games is expected in mid-July.

Officials say that around 15,400 athletes are expected to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games, while media, broadcasters, sponsors and others could raise this figure to 93,000. On 15 June, the IOC, the IPC and the TOC jointly issued the final rendition of the so-called ‘playbooks’ which illustrate a series of countermeasures that they say will ensure the Games can take place in a safe and secure manner. Athletes will be required to undergo rigorous testing and socialising will be limited. Participants’ movement will reportedly be monitored by GPS and organisers have warned that breaches could result in financial sanctions, disqualification from events or expulsion from Japan.

Olympic teams have started arriving in Japan under reduced quarantine requirements in preparation for 23 July. Though the playbooks do not require vaccination for the Games’ participants, the IOC expects that more than 80% of Olympic and Paralympic participants travelling to Japan will be fully vaccinated. This contrasts with the estimated 7.3% of the Japanese population that has so far been vaccinated amid a slow rollout that has only started speeding up in recent weeks. Though the government has ramped up its vaccination campaign, concerns about how the authorities will be able to control the spread of the virus during the Games is increasing.

Already, at least 10,000 of the 80,000 people who signed up to volunteer at the Games have quit and several host towns have pulled out due to the pandemic. Some Olympic teams and countries, including North Korea, have also pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics citing COVID-19 concerns. Meanwhile, a group of 6,000 physicians known as the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association recently wrote a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to cancel the Games, arguing that the risks are too great; however, despite opposition from medical professionals and local businesses, the organisers have ruled out cancelling or postponing the Tokyo Olympics for a second time.

Analysis and Implications

Tokyo was awarded the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games in 2013, which generated hope that it would help drive the nation's recovery following an earthquake and tsunami which struck Fukushima and caused a nuclear disaster in 2011. The Japanese government hoped that hosting the 2020 Olympics would reprise the triumph of 1964, when it became the first Asian nation to host the Olympic Games, which significantly boosted the country's economy. Despite strong support for the Games at first, enthusiasm amongst the Japanese population declined considerably, even before the pandemic, with many criticising the government for cost overruns and a lack of trained workers.

Similar to other countries, Japan's economy has been significantly impacted by COVID-related lockdowns and recurrent surges in cases have faltered the country’s recovery. Takahide Kiuchi, an economist with the Nomura Research Institute, estimates that Japan’s three state of emergencies have so far cost the country a collective 15.9 trillion yen (144.3 billion USD). If the Games cause another wave of infections that leads to another lockdown, Japan’s economy would shrink even further.

So far, Japan has officially spent 15.4 billion USD on the Games, but government audits suggest it could be twice that much. When weighed against the estimated revenue of 15.1 billion to 16.4 billion USD that the Olympics could generate, the potential financial cost of hosting the Games seemingly overshadows the potential benefits. In response to mounting calls for the Games to be called off, Prime Minister Suga has pointed out that the IOC has the sole authority to cancel the event as per the host city contract Japan signed when they won the bid. If the Japanese government unilaterally decides to cancel the Games, they could find themselves in a legal dispute with the IOC which the Nomura Research Institute predicts could cost the country about 1.8 trillion yen (16.5 billion USD). Alternatively, if both Japan and the IOC decide to cancel the Games, it could lead to significant financial costs and legal ramifications as both the host city and the IOC have contractual obligations with third parties. The IOC is thought to make around 70% of its money from broadcast rights and 18% from sponsorship; therefore, cancelling the Games could severely damage its finances and the future of the Olympics.

Once seen as a matter of pride for host cities, in recent years, the reputation of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has declined. Cities in both developed and developing nations usually accumulate significant debts and dilapidated infrastructure after hosting the Olympics. While local organisers and hosts have historically benefitted from the money generated through hotels, restaurants, local businesses and transportation around the host city, the recent decision to bar international spectators from the Tokyo Games has precipitated trip cancellations and refunds for an estimated 600,000 tickets. While this could pose significant economic implications for the city and local businesses alike, a survey conducted by the Tokyo Shoko Research in early June found that over 60% of companies across Japan would prefer the Games to be cancelled or postponed due to concerns that a surge in COVID-19 infections amid the Games could pose more costly consequences for their businesses.
Public sentiment has also been generally opposed to holding the Games in Tokyo due to concerns of a spike in COVID-19 cases. Protesters have participated in sporadic demonstrations across Tokyo in recent months to denounce the Games and an anti-Olympic online petition set up last month has gained over 431,000 signatures to date. However, recent research found that support for holding the Games has risen to 34%, up from just 14% last month, which is likely due to an improvement in Japan’s epidemiological situation. Though a majority still oppose the Games, the increasing support lessens the likelihood that they will be postponed or cancelled.

Although international spectators are not permitted to attend the Olympics, the head of the Japanese Doctors Union, Ueyama Naoto, warned that inviting tens of thousands of athletes and officials from over 200 countries could lead to the emergence of an “Olympic” variant of COVID-19. On 19 June, a member of Uganda's Olympic team became the first to test positive for COVID-19 on arrival at Tokyo's Narita airport. The nine-member team has reportedly been fully vaccinated; therefore, the positive test highlights the ongoing risk of virus transmission among those who have been fully vaccinated and underscores the perilous threat to Japanese citizens amid a slow vaccination rollout.

While rigorous testing and strict rules are in place for athletes and other participants, the largest threat of transmission would likely come from groups of people who may gather to watch the Olympic events in bars. Additionally, while some of the 70,000 volunteers will be fully vaccinated, many others may not be. As most of these volunteers are expected to travel to and from the events each day via public transportation there is still a significant risk of transmission should the Games go ahead. Should the epidemiological situation in Japan worsen and a fourth state of emergency be declared, Suga said the decision on domestic spectators may be overturned and stricter restrictions could be imposed.