Captains of the sinking ship: The irrationality of the Tokyo Olympics

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One afternoon at my home in Japan, a comment from the TV instantly woke me up from my nap: “Should we really hold the Olympics?”

Although the fate of the Tokyo Olympics has been a popular discussion throughout the pandemic, just the realization that we are still having the conversation right before the event left me appalled.

The fact that lives in Japan are still far from normal just a week away from the Olympics, however, validates the comments. The increasing number of COVID-19 cases has resulted in the fourth state of emergency declaration, which will remain in place throughout the Olympics. Restaurants and bars have been asked either to close or shorten their business hours, while alcohol offerings are kept on hold. With the new policy, large gatherings such as concerts and movie showings are to be restricted in their durations and capacity.

The preparedness of the Japanese population for hosting the Olympics is also in question. Only 20% of the population has been fully vaccinated, with most of the people in that group being elderly people at the highest risk. The vaccines are not yet available for many younger people, and the fear of severe side effects as well as a bitter collective memory of other kinds of vaccination in the past seem to be discouraging many from getting vaccinated even once the opportunity arises.

Naturally, energy and momentum for the event are waning as well. In addition to the petitions collected, some of which accrued as many as 450,000 signatures, recent surveys show that more than 62.9% of the population hopes for either cancellation or the delay of the upcoming Games. With other ongoing actions such as #CancelTheOlympics on Twitter and a series of in-person demonstrations, the Olympics do not quite seem like a reality — even for locals.

While the Olympics make no sense in this situation, the logos and campaigns found everywhere in the city, as well as the commercials and the government’s attitude, seem to appeal to us, convincing us that the show must go on — at any cost.

For large stakeholders — government, International Olympic Committee, Tokyo — canceling the Games entirely is too much of a cost to bear. Not only would the estimated financial loss exceed 1.8 trillion yen ($16 billion), but the cancellation would also result in various liability issues, as the Games are built on numerous webs of contracts, from those for broadcasting rights to ones between the IOC and the organizing committee. The lack of precedent in canceling the event for any reason other than wars, overlapping with politicians’ yearning for prestige in the lead-up to the next election, makes the option even less plausible.

But this sense of limbo — a discrepancy between the illusion of excitement for the Olympics that the government, sponsors and media display, and the people’s reluctance — is not new.

Starting with the reconstruction of the stadium from scratch after greatly exceeding the original budget due to miscalculation, followed by a plagiarism claim against the logo which was later substituted with a new design​​ and then by a shockingly misogynistic remark by the organizing chair, the people of Japan have been let down too many times already. Now that the Olympics no longer welcome spectators, financial benefit — one of the popular reasons for supporting the Games — is no longer feasible; the Olympics just do not make sense anymore.

Nevertheless, asked if canceling the Games is a real possibility, the answer must be no. With a delay, series of scandals and loss of ticket budget, too much cost has built up already. And the organizers, especially, are aware that they cannot lose anymore.

Of course, the Games hold great importance for athletes regardless of the situation. They are the dream stage for athletes, who have sacrificed everything — from their education, time, money and even family and friends — dreaming of the moment when they can shine on the biggest stage they could hope for. For them, the Olympics is literally their life itself.

Even so, unlike other sporting events, the Olympics should be held under a consensus of stakeholders. And often disregarded in the process is in fact, us, the people. With Tokyo’s fragile medical situation due to the increasing cases and new variants concerns, there is no longer a good enough justification. In a situation where even sports events for little kids are canceled in Japan, whether to hold the Olympics or not should be pretty clear.

Then, who are the Games for? Are they for the captain of the sinking ship, who tells guests that everything’s going to be OK when it’s actually not?

With athletes arriving on the site, even with some carrying the virus, the show may have to go on, after all — or, at least, the captains insist that it will be so.

While the government uses “legacy” — long-lasting benefits that the Games are supposed to give to the host city — as its defense, what will be left, at least what I think, is a feeling of despair. A bitter feeling that people can be powerless in the face of institutions and that the Olympics are the product of money and greed, not the shining stage I, too, once dreamed of as a little athlete.

Have the Olympics always been this way? Is having your magical vision of the Olympics torn down part of growing up?

Maybe this is a bitter lesson that leaders don’t always serve people, or this might be karma for years of indifference in politics, which produced leaders for whom serving the people is not on the top of their priority list.

What we can hope for, aside from the safety of the Japanese population and competing athletes from all countries, is that the games leave as their legacy a sense of crisis in our democracy that spurs future change.

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].