Should Japan cancel the Tokyo Olympics? He may not be able to
As Japan experiences a fourth wave of COVID-19, national opposition to the Summer Olympics and Paralympics is growing.
Two new opinion polls, showing that between 60% and 80% want the games to be canceled or postponed, have sparked a frenzy of articles all asking the same question: will the Olympics be canceled?
We’ve been here before – and not just last year when the Tokyo Games were originally scheduled to take place. Throughout the spring there have been rumors and leaks that the Olympics will not take place. These were canceled each time both by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and by the Japanese government, headed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The latest opinion polls are the clearest sign to date that the public has resolutely turned against the Summer Games. It’s an election year – Suga’s first since taking over from his predecessor Shinzo Abe – and there is no doubt that these polls are bad news for both the prime minister and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP ) in power.
Still, if I were an Olympian (I’m definitely not an Olympian), I wouldn’t stop training yet. Indeed, the decision to cancel or continue the games is not a simple question of infection rate. It’s more about politics and money – huge sums of money.
Does public opinion matter?
Japan is currently battling a fourth wave of the pandemic and several regions are in a state of emergency, although the national number of infections is now declining.
From a western perspective, Japan has had great success in containing the spread of COVID-19. Like its neighbors South Korea and Taiwan, Japan recognized the aerial nature of the virus early on. The immediate and widespread use of masks, aggressive contact tracing and an early lockdown of care for the elderly have all been credited with Japan’s success in keeping the death toll relatively low at 11,900.
But compared to its neighbors Taiwan and South Korea, Japan’s performance seems less impressive. The government has been widely criticized for encouraging domestic tourism in the midst of the third wave. Meanwhile, vaccine deployment in Japan is one of the slowest in the OECD. And now these opinion polls show clear majorities against the Summer Games. The question is: does public opinion really matter?
Japan has an extremely low turnout. Combined with the peculiarities of the electoral system, this means that the PLD does not have to win anything near a majority of eligible voters to retain power. In the last general election, when only 25% of eligible voters chose the PLD, it gave them 60% of the seats in parliament.
Simply put, if public opinion matters, it is not decisive. Some opposition leaders have spoken out against the games, but overall the opposition is weak and divided. The PLD has been in power for 61 of the past 65 years and has a long history of defying public opinion on major national issues and winning reelection.
Win the Prestige Olympics
From Suga’s perspective, domestic public opinion is only one factor in a complex equation, which includes contractual obligations to the IOC and, perhaps more importantly, international prestige. After all, given that the Olympics are almost always a net loss, why would anyone want to host them even in the easiest of times?
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked the end of Japan’s post-war pariah status and its return to the international fold. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, meanwhile, marked China’s arrival to great power status. The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea were a symbolic success when North and South marched together for the first time under a unified flag. On a related note, the 2020 Summer Olympics – now the 2021 games – were supposed to present a new revitalized Japan.
Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Games, which are touted as the first “green” Olympics and will make Beijing the only city to have hosted both winter and summer games (an event that itself is now in the works. controversial over President of the Representatives Nancy Pelosi call for a boycott).
In the region full of geopolitical tensions and rivalries, this kind of international prestige matters, at least for the leaders.
The legal right to cancel
So far, I have described politics and prestige from a Japanese perspective, as if the decision rests solely in Tokyo. Legally, however, the Olympics are not to be canceled in Tokyo. The IOC owns the games and Japan is contractually obligated to host them.
The IOC, and not Tokyo, is the only actor who can terminate the contract. The IOC depends on the event for its income, and its chairman Thomas Bach has made it clear that the games will run independently of Wave Four. It was the IOC, not Tokyo, that recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Pfizer on donating vaccines for athletes.
While Japan could break the contract and unilaterally cancel the games, the costs would be huge. Even though it is canceled with the support of the IOC, Japan has invested huge sums of its own money in the games, most of which are sunk costs.
So what will the games be like, assuming they play out? Most competitors will be vaccinated, but the officials accompanying them may not be. Spectators, if any, will be fully domestic and likely face strict social distancing rules. Athletes have been told that they will face various restrictions preventing them from interacting with Japanese society more broadly.
Yet with thousands of athletes arriving from all over the world potentially carrying new and unknown variants of the virus, even with everyone on their best behavior, the games carry a major risk.
Suga staked his leadership on successful summer games. Pulling them out without a major outbreak of infection will not only help LPD cross the line in October, but help them stay in control. If the games fail, it won’t be a bronze medal Suga receives on exiting. Maybe a wooden spoon instead.