With the 2021 Summer Olympics set to begin in just 138 days, mounting skepticism about Japan’s ability to safely host the Games has put Japanese officials on the defensive. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world and the sluggish reality of global immunization may make the cancellation of the games necessary.
On March 19, 2020, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan made the decision to postpone the Olympic Games for the first time since the games began in 1896. The games, originally slated to take place from July 24 to Aug. 9 of 2020, are now set to begin on July 23, 2021 and run until Aug. 8. The Paralympic games (originally scheduled for the summer of 2021) are shifting accordingly and will now run from Aug. 24 until Sept. 5, 2021. Abe and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), certified the decision due to growing hesitance from national Olympic committees, athletes, sports federations and health experts to hold the games amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Olympic Games have only been cancelled three times in their storied history: once during World War I and twice during World War II. Despite great tragedies throughout the years, such as the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Games, the games have continued, serving as a symbol of unity and perseverance for grieving communities around the world.
Japan remains steadfast in their mission to host the games for the first time since 1998, denouncing recent reports of internal doubt. Most recently, the Times of London reported that an anonymous senior member of Japan’s ruling coalition said that the Japanese government had privately concluded the games will have to be cancelled. “No one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it’s too difficult,” the source told the Times. “Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
But Olympic and Japanese officials were quick to deny those reports, insisting the games would move ahead as planned and calling all reports “categorically untrue.” Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide affirmed Japan’s stance last Friday, telling his country’s parliament, “I am determined to realize a safe and secure Tokyo Games as proof that mankind will have overcome the virus,” according to the Washington Post.
Since initial COVID-19 outbreaks halted professional sports play around the world, athletics have resumed in varying fashions. The implementation of playing without fans in arenas and isolated athletic campuses have proven successful in returning athletes to competitive play — though nothing has been attempted on the same scale as the Olympics. In the year since the first outbreaks, scientists and public health officials have gained tremendous insight into the coronavirus and have an improved sense of how to contain it. Japan has fared quite well in its handling of the pandemic, experiencing only about 1% of the cases reported in the United States. Yet, despite Japan’s early success at controlling COVID-19, the host country continues to face unpredictable outbreaks and complications. Tokyo and three other provinces are currently under a state of emergency for the second time this month and are dealing with their deadliest pandemic wave yet.
The long-awaited release of multiple vaccines offers some hope for Olympic fans and participants. However, a significant period of time is required before global immunization is possible. According to the Associated Press, over 127 million citizens in Japan alone will need to be vaccinated in order for it to safely host the games. Priority vaccinations in Japan will not begin for at least another month, while the host nation’s general vaccination campaign is set to begin in May, only two months before the Games are set to start.
Despite Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, independently saying that “it is not possible to accept [spectators]” considering the current state of the pandemic, the IOC has ruled out holding the Olympic Games without spectators. “Tokyo 2020 is making efforts to accommodate spectators as much as possible, while implementing thorough measures to prevent infection,” the organization said in a statement.
A recent online survey by Kyodo News revealed that over 80% of the Japanese public now believes the Games should be cancelled or rescheduled. However, Japanese investing companies, which have poured millions of dollars into Olympic advertising and affiliated business, remain undeterred and are continuing to work under the assumption that the event will go ahead as planned. Japanese officials have prohibited investors from giving media interviews and discouraged companies from raising concerns about a potential “Plan B.” But internally, companies are attempting to create plans for what feels like an inevitable cancellation or reduction in scale.
Much of the initial postponement was forced upon Japan as Olympic committees for individual countries began to pull their athletes out of the Games. This time around, however, no country has said it will opt out of the Games. Some leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have expressed serious skepticism about Japan’s ability to host the event safely. The United States Olympic Committee, in contrast, said in a statement on Jan. 21 that it had not received any news “suggesting the Games will not happen as planned, and our focus remains on the health and preparedness of Team USA athletes ahead of the Games this summer.”
Athletes, many of whom get just one or two shots at the Olympics in their entire career, might not get another chance to compete if the 2020 Games are cancelled. “Whatever they say they want us to do, I’m in 100%, because I’ve been training so hard and I’ve just been so ready,” US gymnast Simone Biles told CNN Sports.
Takeshi Niinami, a prominent advisor to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, provided CNBC with guidelines that should be achieved for the Tokyo Olympics to safely go on as scheduled. These include controlling the current resurgence of cases in Tokyo, requiring individuals to wear contact-tracing devices, successful rollout of the vaccine in February and experimenting with other major professional sporting events in Japan (such as professional baseball games).
If deemed safe, the 2021 Summer Olympic Games will surely go down in history as one of the most improbable sporting events to occur given the circumstances. As the world attempts to emerge from a once-in-a-century pandemic, the Games may be exactly what it needs: a symbol of good will and collaboration in which each nation may engage in friendly competition on the world stage.