On May 14, 10 weeks before the start of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, the ones which organizers once sold as the “Recovery Games,” Kenji Utsunomiya submitted his petition.
Backed by 350,000 signatures, amid a state of emergency, it arrived at Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s desk with a simple message.
“Cancel the Tokyo Olympics.”
And all across a country awash in controversy, a country anything but recovered from the pandemic, millions of people seem to agree. Public opinion polls have shown that somewhere between 60 and 80% of Japanese citizens oppose the holding of the Tokyo Games this summer. Some have pressured athletes to pull out. Others have protested in streets. Athletes themselves have questioned the Games’ safety. Members of parliament have bickered about them.
Despite growing opposition, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organizing committee have repeatedly said that the Games are on. “Everything is telling us,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Wednesday, “that the Games can go ahead and will go ahead.” Organizers have revealed some of an elaborate plan to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among participants – and, crucially, throughout the host city.
“Our experts are satisfied that it can be done,” Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. The Japanese government and organizing committee agree, Pound said, that “we can do this, and we should do it.”
But a series of minor cancellations and COVID-related alterations have stimulated external concern that plans could still crumble. The traditional torch relay has been rerouted and interrupted. Dozens of Japanese towns have abandoned plans to host foreign athletes. USA Track and Field called off a pre-Games training camp in Japan. IOC president Thomas Bach recently called off a visit.
And so, among people two and three degrees removed from the IOC and organizing committee, some doubts linger about whether the Games will actually happen.
Most, to be clear, believe they likely will. Pound, who last winter spoke honestly about the prospect of postponement, said the probability is “very close to 100%.”
The question, then, is whether they should happen against the wishes of the hosts.
A country on edge
The threat of COVID-19 is at the heart of the Japanese public’s uneasiness about hosting the Olympics this summer. Japan is already grappling with a surge in cases that has hampered its economy, overburdened its healthcare system and fueled frustration over a sluggish vaccine rollout.
On May 14, as Japan’s case count exceeded 6,000 for the fourth consecutive day, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expanded the state of emergency he had previously declared from six regions to nine. That means 70% of Japanese citizens must abide by restrictions temporarily shuttering department stores, theme parks and museums and banning eateries from serving alcohol or staying open past 8 p.m.
Although Japan’s current infection rate doesn’t come close to what the U.S. endured last winter, the Japanese healthcare system also doesn’t appear prepared to handle such an outbreak. In Japan’s hardest-hit cities, hospitals are reportedly overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Some hospitals with enough doctors and nurses have used waiting rooms and hallways to create extra bed space. Those that are understaffed have been forced to turn away severely ill patients.
Kentario Iwata, an infectious disease expert at Kobe University, told Yahoo Sports that his hospital expanded its ICU to accommodate more patients, but “the number newly diagnosed with COVID is far more than we can manage.” Norio Sugaya, Director of Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama City, told Yahoo Sports the crisis is even more dire in Osaka.
“Nearly 20 patients were unable to be hospitalized and died at home,” Sugaya said. “Patients in need of oxygen are waiting to be hospitalized at home.”
While vaccinations have slowed the spread of the virus across the U.S. and Europe, only about 3% of Japanese citizens have received even one dose. Experts blame that on a few factors, from a lack of urgency after Japan’s early success combatting the virus, to a historical mistrust of immunizations, to a government slow to approve new drugs and ill-prepared to run a mass vaccination campaign.
“Achieving a high rate of vaccination was never a mission in Japan for many vaccines,” Iwata said, “and now the government is struggling to do what they have never even tried.”
The IOC expects a “large majority” of the athletes and support staff in the Olympic Village to be vaccinated, and a World Health Organization director recently expressed “confidence” that organizers “will make the right decisions regarding how best to manage the risks.” Yet many of Japan’s infectious disease experts still caution against hosting tens of thousands of foreigners, who’ll come into contact with some of the 78,000 local volunteers. The risk of a potential super-spreader event is a concern, as is the possibility that foreign athletes, coaches and media members could unknowingly unleash infectious new variants on the Japanese populace.
Another common frustration in Japan is the inevitability of the Olympics taking doctors, nurses, equipment and beds from everyday citizens who need them. Says Masahiro Yamagata, a Tokyo translator, tour guide and activist who opposes the Olympics: “People die due to lack of access to COVID-19 medical treatment. Why should we spare such scarce resources to athletes and journalists from other countries?”
‘We are not disposable pawns’
In late April, as the latest wave of COVID cases threatened to overwhelm Japan’s healthcare system, Tokyo Olympic organizers called for 500 nurses to volunteer to help staff this summer’s Games. The request sparked widespread anger from a Japanese medical community already stretched thin while fighting the virus.
Tens of thousands of people liked or retweeted this image of a Japanese nurse holding up a placard proclaiming, “We are not disposable pawns.”
The head of a Tokyo hospital also created a social media stir when he posted messages on its windows denouncing the Olympics.
“Medical capacity has reached its limits. Stop the Olympics!” one sign read. Another begged, “Give us a break. The Olympics are impossible!”
In a statement released earlier this month, the secretary general of the Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Union urged the Japanese government to focus on the pandemic, not the Olympics. “I am very upset that we insist on holding the Olympics at the expense of the lives and health of patients and nurses,” Susumu Morita said.
Satoko Itani, an assistant professor at Kansai University, alleges that the request for volunteer nurses isn’t the first time Japan has prioritized the Games over the lives of its citizens. Itani accused the Japanese government of deliberately lifting state of emergency orders in time to begin the Olympic torch relay in March, creating a “dense gathering of people around Japan” and instilling a “false sense of normalcy and safety.”
“I don’t say the Olympics is the only problem here, but it has certainly made the situation worse,” Itani told Yahoo Sports. “It will make it even worse if the Games actually occur.”
Itani’s cynicism underscores the mood of many Japanese citizens with the Olympics only weeks away. Most are only comfortable voicing their opposition through polling or via social media, but in recent weeks an exasperated minority has demonstrated in the streets.
As a track and field meet began inside a Tokyo stadium on May 10, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside to protest the decision to plow ahead with the Olympics. They marched around the stadium, waiving signs denouncing the Japanese government’s priorities, the soaring cost of the Olympics and the displacement of the poor.
The images of the protest were striking, but it’s Utsunomiya’s online petition to cancel the Tokyo Olympics that likely has more clout. Change.org said the petition accumulated signatures at the fastest rate ever recorded on its Japanese site.
“I do not understand the reason to hold the Olympics when our medical care system is already in a state of collapse,” one nurse commented. Wrote another commenter, “It’s impossible to host the Olympics in a country where not enough facilities and hospital beds can be provided even for domestic citizens.”
Source: Jeff Eisenberg and Henry Bushnell