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Are The Olympics Really Going to Happen? (And Should They?)

Less than 40 days out from the Olympics, it’s looking like the Games will go on despite growing calls to cancel or postpone them. Here’s a review of the upheaval around the Olympic Games since last year, and where we are right now.

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Over the past 6 months, we have been hit with an ongoing slew of problematic news out of Tokyo. 

Rumored reports that the Japanese government was trying to finagle its way out of hosting the Olympic Games, the banning of overseas spectators, the cancelation of pre-Olympic training camps, and media coverage of anti-Games petitions and protests have all naturally spurred questions about whether the Games will, or should, be called off. 

Here’s a review of the major news events surrounding the Games that have unfolded since they were postponed back in March 2020, and what we can expect to happen in the coming two months leading up to when the torch is set alight on July 23. 

March 2020 

The Olympic Rings logo is pictured in front of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee.
The Olympic Rings logo is pictured in front of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne on March 18, 2020, as doubts increase over whether Tokyo can safely host the summer Games amid the spread of the COVID-19. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

As the Coronavirus first begins to force millions of people around the globe into lockdowns, having claimed more than 17,000 lives, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be postponed until the following summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Abe says that Japan will fulfill its responsibility as the host nation “to prove that humanity has beaten the novel coronavirus.”

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC says in a joint statement with the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee.

January 2021

Japan resident in mask walks past Tokyo 2020 sign.
A pedestrian walks past a traffic sign next to an official Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games banner hanging on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building on January 22, 2021. Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

The first stirrings of trouble begin to churn when the the London Times (apparently inaccurately) reports that the Japanese government privately concluded that the Tokyo Olympics would have to be cancelled because of the pandemic and growing number of COVID-19 infections in the country. This comes after Japan had earlier in the month declared a widespread state of emergency after a spike in cases. 

The International Olympic Committee immediately refutes the report, calling the claims “categorically untrue” and insists that all parties involved in 2020 Olympics were working to prepare for a successful opening of the Games on July 23. The Japanese government also denies the report, promising that the Games will go ahead as planned. 

“There is no Plan B,” says the I.O.C. president Thomas Bach. By now, COVID-19 has killed over 1.8 million people globally.

February 2021 

As if all the deadly virus complications weren’t enough, news breaks that the Tokyo Olympics chief has resigned over some unsavory comments, like saying that women talk too much during meetings. Not a great look. Naturally this sparks ire both in Japan and abroad over the jarringly blatant sexism.  

Though Mori (formerly a prime minister) initially says he’s  sorry, but is not about to resign over it, criticism from sponsors, media, and the global public, plus an online petition that amasses 150,000 signatures, forces him out.

March 2021

In March, another screw comes loose in the Tokyo Olympic plans when it is announced that this year’s Games will take place but will bar any overseas spectators due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Based on the present situation of the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that entry into Japan will be guaranteed this summer for people from overseas,” the Olympic organizing committee says in a statement. “In order to give clarity to ticket holders living overseas and to enable them to adjust their travel plans at this stage, the parties on the Japanese side have come to the conclusion that they will not be able to enter Japan at the time of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

April 2021

Picture showing "100 Days to go".
The 100 days countdown until the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games displayed on the illuminated Tokyo Skytree in Tokyo on April 14, 2021. Photo: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

In mid-April, CNN reports that with just 100 days to go until the Games, less than 1% of Japan’s population has been vaccinated. Questions are tossed around about how the city of Tokyo can possibly pull off the world’s biggest athletic event while keeping volunteers, athletes, officials, and the country’s public safe from COVID-19. Japan at this point has just passed 500,000 total coronavirus cases and some areas of the country are beginning to tighten their COVID-19 restrictions as daily infections grow. A professor at Saitama Medical University in Japan, Hideaki Oka, says rather alarmingly that Japan may not be able to contain the latest wave of the virus infections before the Games begin on July 23.

Furthermore, a telephone poll by Kyodo News comes out claiming that a majority of those living in Japan polled were in favor of further postponing the Olympics or canceling them all together. More specifically, the poll found that roughly 39% believe that the already postponed Olympics should be canceled, and about 33% think they should be rescheduled. Opposition also comes from a British Medical Journal editorial in which the authors plead for the Olympic plans to be reconsidered for global health and security.  

By now, the COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 3 million.

May 2021

Person holding "cancel the Tokyo Olympics" sign.
A protester holds a placard during a protest against the Tokyo Olympics on May 17, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. With less than 3 months remaining until the Tokyo Olympics, a recent survey has indicated that around 60 percent of Japanese people do not want the Games to go ahead. Photo: Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

As COVID-19 cases resurge in Japan sending most of the country back into a state of emergency, global public disapproval of starting the Games as scheduled grows louder. 

News comes out saying that the governors in 9 Japanese prefectures think that the Tokyo Olympic Games should be postponed again or canceled altogether if the present surge in cases is not brought under control. These headlines, however, are somewhat misleading, as there are 47 governors in Japan, and 38 supported the Olympics going ahead as planned. 

“They could have gone with ‘9 out of 47 JPN Govs want Oly canceled,’ ‘Less than 20% of JPN Gov want Oly canceled,’ ‘38 of 47 JPN Govs want Oly to go ahead,’ or even ‘Over 80% of JPN Govs want Oly to Go Ahead,’ but none of those would pack the same kind of hook as the context-free headline they went with,” notes Brett Larner, a reporter living in Japan.  

This same month, Jules Boykoff, an American University political scientist who studies the Olympics, writes a New York Times Op-Ed that calls for the Games to be canceled as it could become a superspreader event. “Pressing ahead with the Olympics risks drinking poison to quench our thirst for sport,” writes Boykoff. “The possibility of a superspreader catastrophe is not worth it for an optional sporting spectacle. It’s time to cancel the Tokyo Olympics.” 

It’s reported that the USA track and field team has canceled its pre-Olympics training camp in Japan out of understandable safety concerns for the athletes due to the pandemic. There are also growing anxieties about the ability of the Olympics to protect workers from the coronavirus. An article published by the New York Times questions the sufficiency of the health measures the Games put in place for its 78,000 volunteers: cloth masks, sanitizer, and hard-to-follow guidance on social distancing. 

And yet, the consensus amongst the International Olympic Committee, Olympic organizers, and the Japanese government is unwavering: The Games must go on. Even in a state of emergency.

Where We’re At Now: June 2021

Picture of the Olympic caldron alight.
The Olympic cauldron will be lit on July 23, 2021. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

With less than 40 days until the Games are set to take place, around 10,000 of the 80,000 unpaid volunteers for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics tell organizers in June that they will not participate in volunteering when the Games kick off on July 23. Some of the reason for the drop out has to do with concerns about COVID-19, as not many volunteers are expected to be vaccinated ahead of the Games.

Support for the Olympics still lags in Japan, with 50 to 80% of the population (a statistic that varies depending on the phrasing of the question) saying no, the Games shouldn’t open on July 23. 

A group of scientists in Japan, which includes some of the country’s top advisors on the COVID-19 pandemic, warn that allowing spectators at the Games will cause the virus to spread throughout Japan and internationally. While tourists are barred from entering Japan to spectate the Games in person, millions of people in the country could potentially attend competitions in venues in and around Tokyo. At this point, the virus has claimed nearly 3.8 million lives worldwide. As of June 10, a total of 2,156,550,767 vaccine doses have been administered.

Despite the turbulence and lack of public support, however, it’s looking like the Olympics torch will be lit on the planned July date. Financially it makes sense, the city is spending $15.4 billion to organize the Games, though it’s probably much higher. All but 6.7 billion of that comes from public money.

In terms of healthcare, however, it’s not clear whether or not the decision is a smart one. Japan has attributed just over 13,000 deaths to the COVID-19 virus, which, although on the low side of the spectrum when compared to similarly populated countries, is higher than many of its neighboring countries in Asia. 

Last week, IOC president Thomas Bach optimistically proclaimed: 

“We’re entering the final lap ahead of these postponed Olympic Games.”

And, despite the reported opposition, half of the Japanese public are also optimistic that the Games will go ahead this summer. It’s also been suggested that the media has been pumping a good amount of hot air into the controversy, making it appear bigger than it actually is. Larner points out, for example, a headline run by the AP in mid-May about there having been an anti-Olympic protest rally outside of Toko’s main train station. Later in the article, it becomes evident that only 30 people participated. 

Are these [protests] really any different than what you’d see before any Olympics? I saw an animal rights protest march down Tokyo’s most fashionable street a week or two before that and there were at least 10 times as many people taking part,” says Larner. 

As the first international athletes to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have already arrived in Japan, it’s looking increasingly like the Games will indeed happen, thanks to the organizers hell-bent on making sure they do. But many questions still swirl around the rings, with few answers. Will domestic spectators be allowed? What will the safety protocols be for each event? Will coaches be allowed in? What will athletes’ living and transportation arrangements be? The list goes on.

Ultimately, the 2020 Olympic Games are shaping up to be a watered down version of the Games, overshadowed by health concerns wrought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But for the athletes, once they are on the line, the competition will go on — it will still be the Olympics.

July 2021 Update: No Spectators Allowed  

Some questions have been answered, and the Olympics is looking more chaotic than before. On Thursday, July 8, the Japanese government declared its fourth state of emergency in Tokyo. It will extend through August 22. But, you can bet your bottom dollar that the 2020 Games will still go on. Spectators, however, will not be present at nearly all Olympic venues throughout Tokyo. These games will be an on-screen affair only for just about all of us.