Japan has far more at stake than its athletes picking up medals in the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympics, which explains the government’s single-minded commitment to going ahead with the event in the face of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

The Japanese government on Wednesday morning reiterated that the Games would go ahead in July as scheduled, with chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga declaring that preparations were continuing despite the spread of the virus worldwide.

The previous day, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threw its weight behind Tokyo’s position. “We are preparing for a successful Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020,” said IOC head Thomas Bach.

“I would like to encourage all the athletes to continue their preparations … with great confidence and full steam,” he said. “From our side, we will continue to support the athletes and the national Olympic committees.”

Both statements came on the heels of a comment by Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s minister with responsibility for the Games, who suggested that the contract with the IOC “could be interpreted as allowing for a postponement” until later in the year. On Thursday, Hashimoto acknowledged to the Upper House budget committee that a cancellation or delay of the games would be “unacceptable for the athletes”.

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said a great deal is at stake for Japan as the last time a modern Olympic Games was cancelled was in 1940 – ironically as a result of Japan’s invasion of China in July 1937, and the outbreak of World War II. Meanwhile, the Rio Games in Brazil went on as planned in 2016 despite the outbreak of the Zika virus.

While the 1940 cancellation has largely been forgotten, it would unquestionably cause serious loss of face to the Abe administration if events did conspire to halt Tokyo 2020, he said.

Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University in Kyoto believes a number of issues are behind the government’s refusal to contemplate the Games being postponed or cancelled, but one is dominant.

“Yes, it’s about the money that has already been spent on facilities and new infrastructure and the windfall from tens of thousands of foreign tourists, but I think it’s much more about the national political pride of ‘Team Abe’,” she said.

“They wanted to show the world that they could do this, that they would be one of the very few cities to host an Olympics for a second time and that it would be a massive success,” she said. “It’s about chest-thumping.”

Hama pointed out that many Japanese people had been sceptical about the Games, and for a variety of reasons.

Many are unhappy at the cost, which was previously estimated at 1.06 trillion yen (US$9.81 billion) but organisers confirmed in December had risen to 1.35 trillion yen (US$12.35 billion), plus another 3 billion yen required to move the marathon and walking events from Tokyo to Sapporo, in Hokkaido, to avoid the heat and humidity of the capital.

Others said the Games will cause widespread disruption to the lives of ordinary people and that Tokyo was still not fully prepared for the huge numbers of people that will inevitably flood the city. Some voiced concerns that holding the Games at the peak of a Japanese summer would cause problems for athletes, officials and spectators alike. There have been predictions that the heat is going to cause loss of life.

“But there is this strange sort of blind obstinacy that is driving the whole thing forward regardless,” said Hama. “And now the coronavirus has added another layer of very serious concern and I believe the government need to think very carefully what they are going to do.”

Nagy said the Japanese government would be reluctant to postpone the Games as that would “once again tarnish the brand”.

“Seven or eight years ago, Japan was largely seen as a stagnant country that was struggling to shake off the legacy of two decades of economic underperformance, but that changed quite suddenly,” he said.

“Now the ‘Japan brand’ is strong and vibrant as they have successfully hosted G-7 conferences and, more importantly, last year’s Rugby World Cup.”

The rugby served to put Japan on the world stage, said Nagy, and everyone went away feeling very positive and it worked exceptionally well as a “dry run” for the Olympics.

Other considerations are the massive amount of money that was spent on preparing for the Games, as well as the political capital that Abe was obliged to use up to win the right to be the host city and then smooth the way in the run-up to the event.

Dick Pound, a senior member of the IOC, said there is a window of two to three months in which organisers must make a decision, meaning there could only be clarity by the end of May. He told Associated Press that if the coronavirus situation worsens, it would probably mean a cancellation.

“You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There’s so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, ‘We’ll do it in October’,” he said. It was also unlikely that the IOC would move the Games to another city at such short notice.

In the meantime, the local organising committee said it had stepped up its measures to protect runners and spectators for the torch relay, including limiting the number of visitors at venues and monitoring the health of runners.
While the Japanese government remains defiant that the Olympics will go ahead as scheduled, Nagy said both Abe and the IOC were walking a “fine line” on making a final decision.

“There are simply no good choices at this point,” he said. “Policymakers just do not know how long this virus is going to stick around, whether it is going to mutate or anything else. But there will come a point when they absolutely have to make a decision.

“If they wait too long and the outbreak goes on longer than anticipated, then they risk the possibility of a poor public turnout and people getting ill,” he said. “But if they cancel too early and the virus disappears, then they will be accused of being alarmist and of wasting all the effort and money that has already gone into the Games.

“The best they can do, in the circumstances, is to use science and facts and compare this outbreak to previous cycles – and then hope the decision that they do make is the right one.”

Source: Julian Ryall