The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, have already been postponed once due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and are now due to take place on 23rd July – 8th August and 24th August – 5th September 2021. However there are still several challenges facing the events. Seiko Hashimoto, the newly elected President of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, has acknowledged the ‘great public concern’ over Covid-19 and has vowed to host a safe Games.
1. New Tokyo Olympics President
Seiko Hashimoto succeeds Yoshiro Mori in the role, following his resignation after making sexist comments about women. Organisers said the new Tokyo 2020 president should meet several criteria, including a deep understanding of gender equality and diversity and an ability to promote those values during the Games. A panel formed by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organising committee reportedly agreed on Hashimoto’s appointment , one of only a few prominent female politicians in Japan, after a frantic round of meetings held to search for someone to draw a line under the Mori sexism row, and address a several problems that are threatening the event.
Hashimoto is no stranger to the Olympic Games, having taken part in four winter Olympics as a speed skater, winning a bronze medal at the 1992 Games in Albertville, and in three summer Olympics as a track cyclist. Indeed, the first character in her given name, Seiko, comes from seika – Olympic flame in Japanese. Before the new appointment she held the role of Olympics minister. She told the organising committee’s executive board “Now I’m here to return what I owe as an athlete,” continuing, “As I’m taking on such a grave responsibility … I feel I need to brace myself.”
2. The challenges facing the Games
Indeed the role is not looking easy. As the new head of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organising committee, Hashimoto has stated she understands there is ‘great public concern’ over hosting the delayed Games during the coronavirus pandemic. Appointed just under five months before the Tokyo Games are due to open, she stated addressing the coronavirus threat was the most important task she faced, vowing to hold a ‘safe and secure’ Games.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has already released the first of a series of ‘playbooks’ on coronavirus prevention measures for tens of thousands of athletes, sponsors, journalists and officials who are expected in Tokyo in the summer.
3. Opposition to the Games
Hashimoto’s first task as Chief will be to address strong opposition to the Tokyo Games among the Japanese public, and growing doubts about holding the event during the pandemic. Currently about 80% of the Japanese public say the event, which is already the first to be postponed in the modern Olympics’ 124-year history, should either be cancelled or delayed again.
Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane prefecture, announced last Wednesday that the region was considering withdrawing from the torch relay, due to begin late March, because of concern over the spread of Covid-19. About 10,000 runners are expected to carry the torch through Japan’s 47 prefectures, passing through 859 locations over 121 days before the opening ceremony at Tokyo’s national stadium on 23 July.
On Thursday, a Reuters poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Japanese firms opposed holding the Games as planned, showing that 36% of companies wanted a second postponement and 29% wanted cancellation and the remaining 35% wanting the Games to go ahead. When asked how much impact the Games could have on the Japanese economy, 88% of the firms said they expected to feel either limited or very little effect, and only 5% expected a significant boost.
4. The role of the Covid-19 vaccination
Many consider it wise to delay the Games until the Covid-19 vaccine is more widespread. Japan only began its rollout last week, and there are large sections of the population who will not have been inoculated by the time the Games are due to open.
Officials are looking to vaccination as a potential solution and one of the many measures that would enable the Games to go ahead “safely”. Some countries, such as with Denmark and Israel, have vowed to inoculate their entire delegations, whilst Tte Australia Olympic Committee has stated vaccination is ‘strongly recommended for the safety of athletes and the Japanese community’. However, Thomas Bach head of the IOC, and Japanese government officials, have stated that vaccination is not a condition for competing in Tokyo as they are wary of being seen to encourage young, healthy people to jump the vaccine queue. Additionally, vaccinated people may still be able to carry and transmit the virus.
5. The future of the Tokyo Games
Although the human cost of the coronavirus is dramatically higher than it was at this point last year when the Games were postponed, so are the financial stakes for the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organisers as they no longer have the cushion of delaying. Organisers believe they can monitor the health and control the movements of 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes in a ‘sanitary bubble’ in Tokyo, however spectators pose a much bigger problem. Ideas being discussed by the IOC and organisers include allowing full stadiums, cutting venue capacities by half or banning spectators.
There are also the athletes and advertisers to consider, some of whom seem to be having second thoughts. Unconvinced by official assurances, Japan’s Olympic sponsors have scaled back advertising campaigns and delayed marketing events, with firms including Canon and Japan Airlines concerned that organisers have not shared contingency plans for a cancellation. With the summer fast approaching, plans for the Games still seem uncertain.