Tokyo 2020: can the Olympics succeed behind closed doors?


When Shinzo Abe became prime minister of Japan in 2012, one of his first actions was to summon the team in charge of Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games. Madrid and Istanbul were strong favourites to win the right to be the host city, and the defeatism of Japan’s bid team, recalls a close Abe adviser, was all too obvious.

Abe gave his officials a dressing down and took personal charge of a diplomatic quest to drum up global support that a year later culminated in the capture of the 2020 Games and later still his appearance — dressed as Super Mario — at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics in 2016.

The Tokyo Olympics became fundamental to Abe because it summarised his message: Japan would be revived and self-confident after decades of economic stagnation, opening its doors to the world as an equal, and spiritually reconnected to the youthful nation of the 1964 Tokyo Games, when Japan first announced itself as a democratic power.

In nine days, the games will finally begin. The sporting competition will be as sprawling, eclectic and emotional as ever, with new events such as surfing and skateboarding, and stars such as American gymnast Simone Biles, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and Dina Asher-Smith, the British sprinter, to replace icons such as the retired sprinter Usain Bolt.

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, the face of the 2020 Games. Olympians will be kept in a bubble between the athletes’ village and venues, without any chance to meet fans © Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty

‘I’m so fed up now,’ says British swimmer Adam Peaty. ‘I don’t want to go into another meeting and talk about Covid. All I want to do now is race’
‘I’m so fed up now,’ says British swimmer Adam Peaty. ‘I don’t want to go into another meeting and talk about Covid. All I want to do now is race’ © Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket/Getty

Yet looming over all the on-field action will be one big question: what are these Olympics for? They will be held in a city still paralysed by a Covid-19 state of emergency after 18 months of economic crisis. No foreign fans will be in Japan and no Japanese fans will be allowed in the stadiums; the athletes will be kept in a bubble, without any chance to meet the public.

And they are unpopular. More than half the population of Tokyo want the Olympics cancelled or postponed, depending on how the question is asked. Even Emperor Naruhito has signalled, via his grand steward, that he is “extremely concerned” about a games for which he will serve as honorary patron.

The message of economic revival no longer makes sense, the comparison with 1964 rings hollow and Abe himself is gone from office. Other cherished themes, such as the reconstruction of Japan after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, or the use of hydrogen to fuel the Olympic Village, will now get little exposure.

“Before the pandemic, I felt the most valuable legacy of the event would be for many people from throughout the world to come to Japan,” says Yasuhiro Yamashita, a judo gold medallist in 1984 and the current president of the Japan Olympic Committee. “Many things were lost,” he adds. “It is a fact that many things had to be forgotten.”

A demonstration against the  Tokyo 2020 Games in May. Many Japanese citizens are against holding the Olympics during the pandemic, but organisers hope they will warm to the tournament once it starts
A demonstration against the Tokyo 2020 Games in May. Many Japanese citizens are against holding the Olympics during the pandemic, but organisers hope they will warm to the tournament once it starts © Eugene Hoshiko/AP

A political risk

Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s replacement as prime minister, has billed the games as a symbol of the world’s triumph over Covid-19, arguing that Japan has a duty to go ahead. “The world has fought against the great difficulties of Covid-19 and overcome them together. We’d like to send that message from Japan to the world,” he declared in June. Holding the games, Suga added, would “send a message of hope and courage”.

That rhetoric has been undermined by the reality of how these games will operate. After initially announcing that as many as 10,000 spectators would be allowed to attend some events, Suga was forced to execute a U-turn and declare a new state of emergency in Tokyo as Covid cases rise in the capital. The Olympics will now be held behind closed doors. Compared to the crowds seen in recent weeks at the Euro 2020 football championship or Wimbledon tennis tournament, the Tokyo Games will symbolise what was lost to Covid-19, rather than any triumph over it.

For Suga, the Olympics are a calculated political gamble. The prime minister hopes to ride a rush of Japanese gold medals to victory in party and general elections, which must be held in the autumn. Banning spectators reduces the political upside, but also the risk that the games trigger a new wave of Covid-19 infections.

Masatoshi Honda, a political analyst, says the Olympics are vital to Suga because he has so few clear objectives. “The public has a big question: what is Suga trying to do? His only answer is a successful Olympic Games,” says Honda. The prime minister’s approval rating fell to a record low of 33 per cent in an NHK poll this week.

“A successful games is Suga’s condition to be re-elected as president of the [ruling] Liberal Democratic party in September,” says Honda. “That is the reason why I think he’s so keen to continue with the Olympics.”

Olympic flame torchbearer Yoshinori Sakai prepares to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of 1964 Tokyo Games
Olympic flame torchbearer Yoshinori Sakai prepares to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of 1964 Tokyo Games © Keystone/Hulton/Getty

Tokyo’s observation deck overlooking the National Stadium. No fans will be allowed in the games’ venues because of Covid-19 restrictions
Tokyo’s observation deck overlooking the National Stadium. No fans will be allowed in the games’ venues because of Covid-19 restrictions © Kichiro Sato/AP

Criticism of the games has come from a ragtag coalition of opposition parties, civil society figures and doctors, without any unified leadership. The public mood has become one of reluctant acquiescence to the games going ahead, combined with resentment towards those responsible for it, especially the International Olympic Committee.

Japanese sponsors are also mutinous, having paid more for the Tokyo Olympics than any other sports event in history, with little marketing benefit in return. Tokyo 2020 raised more than $3bn from Japanese sponsors alone, leaving aside global sponsorship revenues that go to the IOC.

The IOC’s decision to postpone for 12 months, rather than simply cancel the games — as was done during the two world wars — led to a scramble to renegotiate thousands of commercial contracts, from hotel bookings to sponsorship deals. Top-tier sponsors, which paid about $100m for the original deals, were called on to pay an additional $10m after the event was postponed. The rest of the sponsors were asked to pay about $5m each, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. 

Despite the costly investment, corporate sponsors are now contending with reputational risks that were hardly imaginable before the pandemic. Many have held back from Olympic TV adverts to promote their brands and services. The ban on spectators has also hit sponsors that gave away tickets in marketing campaigns and those who had stocked up on products to sell during the games.

Broadcasters of the games, which account for nearly three-quarters of IOC revenue, are more upbeat. NBC, the US rights holder, said in June that it had sold more than $1.2bn in advertising around the games, more than it did for the Rio Olympics, and just shy of its pre-pandemic forecast of $1.25bn for Tokyo.

Yuki Kusumi, the new chief executive of Panasonic, says some aspects of the Olympics will remain unaffected even if the event is held without spectators. “There is no change to the fact that the games are a symbol of peace where everyone competes in a fair and equal setting to produce results,” he says.

Still, Kusumi admits that the group will need to discuss the future of its sponsorship in light of the changing nature of the games. The company, which supplies large displays, audio equipment and projectors for the stadiums, is a global sponsor of the Olympics until 2024, and had estimated in mid-2019 that the Tokyo Olympics alone would generate revenues of more than ¥200bn ($1.8bn). The projection remains unchanged despite the Covid restrictions.

“We have been sponsoring the Olympics because we believe such activities are positive for society,” Kusumi says. “But we will make our decision on whether or not to continue our sponsorship after seeing how the Olympics evolve from here and carefully assessing its meaning.”

Japan Olympic Committee president Yasuhiro Yamashita, left: ‘We have been provided with an opportunity to look again at what the Olympics are about’
Japan Olympic Committee president Yasuhiro Yamashita, left: ‘We have been provided with an opportunity to look again at what the Olympics are about’ © Eugene Hoshiko/AP

The isolation games

For athletes too it will be a very different experience. They will only be allowed into the Olympic Village for a few days around their event, there will be constant coronavirus testing, and harsh sanctions for breaking any of the many Covid-19 restrictions.

The complex rules needed to maintain the Covid-19 bubble around the games are causing mounting problems, with guidance constantly being updated. Competitors have been told to wear masks at nearly all times, other than eating, sleeping and competing. Towels and water bottles cannot be shared. Transparent acrylic screens have been installed throughout venues with the aim of limiting contact between participants.

“I’m so fed up now,” says swimmer Adam Peaty, one of the favourites to win a gold medal for Britain in Tokyo. “I don’t want to go into another meeting and talk about Covid. All I want to do now is race.”

About 84 per of athletes, coaches and team officials are expected to have been vaccinated prior to arrival in Tokyo after the IOC struck deals with pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Chinese government to acquire vaccine shots. But the main defence will be a strict regime of daily testing with hundreds of thousands of Covid tests taken from athletes, officials and anyone close to the “field of play” during the games.

“When we say the safety of participants is the number one objective, you must walk the talk, [even] if you have increased costs.” says Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games executive director. “[This will be] a campaign of tests that will be incredibly thorough, because we cannot let anything through the net.”

Organisers admit it will be impossible to keep the virus at bay completely. Two members of the Ugandan delegation and a Serbian rower have tested positive on arrival in Tokyo since the start of July. A “fever clinic” will deal with any identified cases, isolating them away from others within the Olympic Village. Given tight competition schedules, even a false positive test may mean an athlete misses out on their chance to compete.

“We’re not immune from having a case,” says Pierre Ducrey, the IOC’s Olympic Games operations director. “You just make it so that the small issue doesn’t become a bigger one.”

About 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes are due to arrive over the coming weeks, alongside 41,000 coaches, judges and other officials. A big question is whether all of the Covid-19 precautions will have an impact on competition. Tokyo 2020 organisers say they have made adaptations to everything but the sport, which remains sacrosanct.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, acknowledges that many competitors will have their preparations disrupted, with Japanese municipalities cancelling pre-games training camps, and less time for athletes to adapt to the hot and humid local conditions.

“As all participating countries and regions are undoubtedly aware,” she says, “the postponed Tokyo 2020 will be very different from previous games.”

Dina Asher-Smith wins the Women’s 100m Final during the British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena last month
British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith is among the favourites for the women’s 200m and 100m titles in Tokyo © J Kruger/British Athletics/Getty

Simone Biles warms up prior to the women’s competition of the 2021 US Gymnastics Olympic Trials in St Louis, Missouri last month
Simone Biles warms up prior to the US Gymnastics Olympic trials in St Louis, Missouri in June © Carmen Mandato/Getty

A slimmed-down event

In those differences, however, lies the best hope of extracting a positive legacy for the Japanese capital and answering an existential question about the world’s biggest sporting event. Over the past decade, cities around the world have pulled out of bidding to stage the games, believing that the financial costs do not justify any potential economic gains from hosting, or the more esoteric returns from improving the national mood.

This view became widespread after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics cost, by some estimates, as much as $51bn once the building of transport routes and infrastructure was taken into account. The next two Summer Games in 2024 and 2028 were effectively handed to Paris and Los Angeles respectively, after other rivals pulled out of the bidding process.

The original budget for Tokyo 2020 was ¥1.35tn ($12.2bn), with ¥600bn coming from the city, ¥150bn from the national government and the rest from commercial revenues. After the year’s delay, that was revised up to ¥1.64tn, with much of the extra coming from the public purse.

With the decision to hold the games behind closed doors, Tokyo taxpayers are on the hook to refund up to ¥90bn in ticket sales. Meanwhile, the Board of Audit of Japan has long said that the official budgets understated public spending on the Olympics. The true cost to Japanese taxpayers may never be clearly spelt out, or at least not until long after the games, but it is likely to be significantly higher than $25bn.

Athletes from Ireland arrive at Narita international airport on July 1 © Kyodo News/AP

Police officers and Olympic staff at the entrance to Tokyo’s Athletes Village © Issei Kato/Reuters

High-handed comments from IOC officials, such as insisting the games should go ahead “barring an Armageddon”, have provoked outrage in Japan. But the delayed and restructured event will prove beyond question that the five-ring circus of the Olympics can be scaled back.

The number of non-athlete attendees has been slashed by more than two-thirds, from 141,000 down to 41,000, with the exclusion of sponsors, dignitaries and other hangers-on. If Japan can nonetheless deliver a successful Olympics, it will show other cities what is essential and what is not, giving them leverage to demand a smaller event in future.

“I believe that we have been provided with an opportunity to look again at what the Olympics are about,” says the JOC’s Yamashita. “I think that is the significance of Tokyo 2020.”

Dubi, the IOC executive director, says the Tokyo games will prove the Olympics can adapt to the specific needs and demands of the host city. “These games will demonstrate that if we speak about an Olympic movement, if we speak about partnership with the host, these are not empty words,” he adds.

Rather than Japanese national revival or humanity’s contest with a virus, the best chance for the Tokyo Olympics may be if they are nothing more than a sports event. After everything else was cut, all that remains of Tokyo 2020 is the athletes and the simple questions. Who is the fastest? Who can go highest? Who is the strongest?

The IOC’s Duprey says: “The element that we have in mind is that these [athletes], if they don’t [compete] this time around, maybe they will never get to do it. I think it’s also been a strong driver for us to make sure that we are as committed as they are to get to the finish line.”

In the prime minister’s office, Suga will be hoping the finish line will be reached with a great many gold medals for Japanese athletes, and hardly any cases of Covid-19. It is no longer a matter of national revival but of political survival.



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