Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

Visitors with the Olympic rings outside the Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo. (Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg)

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

When a nearly empty National Stadium in Tokyo lights up on Friday evening in Japan to mark the beginning of the delayed Summer Olympics, Covid-19’s scar on the event will be glaring.

Gone will be the celebratory cheer that accompanies the start of any Games. Instead of thousands in the audience, there will be empty stands and performers in masks.

For the first time in history, events at Tokyo 2020 will be held without spectators and winners will place their own medals around their necks. Delegations landed amid the looming threat of the infectious delta variant, which has triggered case surges throughout Asia. Athletes social distance in the Olympic Village and eat between plastic barriers in the cafeteria.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

“To be honest, I did not expect the Olympics to be happening like this. I thought the coronavirus would be gone or settled by the time the Olympics started,” Tokyo 2020 chief Toshiro Muto told a press briefing earlier this week. “It hasn’t, and in some ways the problem has gotten more serious.”

Covid has been only the latest, albeit biggest, challenge for an Olympics that’s been mired in drama for nearly a decade, from a scrapped stadium design to a bribery probe. The senior officials who championed the bid — including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — are no longer in office, undone by scandal and stress. The official cost of the Games has more than doubled to $15.4 billion from its original estimate, including an extra $3 billion needed for the delay and Covid-related safety measures.

Support from the Japanese public — long known globally as enthusiastic Olympic fans — has waned amid concerns about the Games becoming a superspreader event. A July 3-4 survey by broadcaster JNN found that 34% wanted to cancel, or postpone them again. The country’s largest companies have made moves to distance themselves, including global sponsor Toyota Motor Corp., which said this week it won’t be airing ads in Japan that feature the Olympics.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

Even though athletes and other participants aren’t allowed to interact with the Japanese public, concerns have grown over the past week about the potential for outbreaks in the so-called Olympic bubble. A handful of athletes have already tested positive for Covid, including an alternate for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. And in another blow, the director of the opening ceremony was fired a day before the Games started for comments he made about the Holocaust two decades ago.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

Early Hurdles

Japan’s journey to the 2020 Olympics started more than a decade ago and was preceded by disaster. In March 2011, as officials were readying to announce another bid after losing out to Rio de Janeiro for 2016, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck off the northeastern coast and caused the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

“There was a strategic decision made to tie the Tokyo bid to reconstruction of the earthquake-devastated area as that would be the biggest appeal,” recalled Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University who researches the Olympics. The reconstruction theme was used initially to gain the acceptance of the Japanese public for the bid, and then later as a pitch to the International Olympic Committee, Ishizaka said.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

Tokyo’s first setback after winning the 2020 Games came in 2015, when the budget for its new national stadium — designed by late celebrity architect Zaha Hadid — swelled to over 50% its original estimate and was set to become the most expensive ever built. Under the pressure of falling support numbers, Abe scrapped the design in favor of a do-over.

“What was striking about it was just the indecision around it. They were all like, ‘what should we do?’” said Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon who has written several books on the Olympics. “That really opened my eyes. Maybe this safe pair of hands isn’t so safe after all.”

Accusations of plagiarism from a Belgian designer over the Tokyo Olympics logo also forced a redo a few months later.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

In January 2019, Bloomberg reported that then-Japan Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda had been charged as part of a French corruption probe into the Games’ being awarded to Tokyo. The investigators suspected Japan was picked following unspecified clandestine arrangements aimed at obtaining the votes of African members of the IOC. Takeda, who said at that time that he hadn’t been indicted, stepped down that March.

Still, the Games had the general support of the public before Covid erupted. The Olympics were the crown jewel in the government's strategy of turning tourism into an economic growth engine. A successful Rugby World Cup in late 2019 set expectations even higher for global sporting events as tourism drivers.

“Suddenly, all of Japan became rugby fans. For me, all I could think about is... imagine that for two weeks at the Tokyo Olympics. It was going to be a massive party. That’s what we all thought was going to happen,” said Roy Tomizawa, author of a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “And it all came crashing down in the beginning of 2020.”

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

Covid Strikes

Before the pandemic, organizers had enlisted 80,000 volunteers, sold over 4 million tickets to domestic residents — amid demand that was nearly 20 times more than the supply — and raised over $3 billion from Japanese corporations, making it most heavily-sponsored sporting event in history.

Although the IOC and Japan initially insisted the Olympic schedule would not be affected by the spreading coronavirus, Abe finally announced in March that the Games would be postponed.

“It was like we were at 40 kilometers in a marathon and suddenly we were told, ‘you have another 10 kilometers,’” said Masa Takaya, a spokesman for Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

The year that followed the delay took out the last two men involved in the winning bid. Abe resigned due to health reasons last September, and Tokyo Olympics chair Yoshiro Mori stepped down this February after international uproar over his comments that women spoke too long in meetings, prompting a last-minute leadership shuffle.

Tokyo's Fraught Olympics Are Set to Begin After Decade of Drama

Some see the entire episode as adding to the argument that the Olympics are now of diminishing returns for host cities, even without a historic public health crisis in the mix.

“The economic benefits of the Olympics come from history, and I think it’s impossible to achieve again,” said Tomoyuki Suzuki, a sports governance researcher who worked on the failed 2016 bid. “But still, it keeps going.”

For Japan, the time for second thoughts has passed. All alternatives are off the table. Let the Games begin.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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