COVID-19 and Japan’s Olympic dilemma

A journalist is silhouetted while taking photos of New National Stadium in Tokyo, July 3, 2019. The stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Photo: AP/UNB

As this column reaches its readership in Bangladesh, in Japan the Olympic torch relay continues its disruptive journey along the country. The much-heralded journey of the Olympic flame was planned to be a showcase event, not a disruptive march forward. It was supposed to be a fanfare with the participation of people throughout the country before the torch reaches its final destination at the newly built Tokyo National Stadium on July 23rd for the official opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. However, the never-ending tragedy surrounding the spread of a deadly virus is forcing torch bearers to alter a number of routes, and in some cases bypass certain spots all together.

The nationwide torch relay started its 121-day journey on March 25 from Japan’s north-eastern Fukushima prefecture and is scheduled to cover all 47 prefectures with celebrities from sports and entertainment world participating in the big event at each of the destinations. However, the unexpected renewed surge of corona virus cases has forced the organizers to bypass some of the routes, while in others the torch moved through empty streets and lanes as spectators were not allowed to join because of precautionary measures. In Osaka, a lone torch bearer was seen running all alone beside a famous city landmark.

The torch is being carried over under the slogan “Hope Lights Our Way” and nobody probably expected at the time of selecting the slogan that the desire and urge for hope would turn out to be extreme, almost to the level of despair. The existing corona virus situation is compelling many in Japan not only to hope for good luck, but also for divine blessing.

As a result, the fate of Tokyo 2020 summer Olympic Games is in a limbo, although various organizing bodies of the games are telling us in a loud voice that things are turning normal and there is no reason for another postponement. However, as virus spread continues virtually unchecked, it remains questionable if the situation in the country during the second half of July will be favorable for allowing the games to go ahead. Meanwhile, a number of unprecedented measures had already been taken to salvage the Olympics from a possible doom.

First, Tokyo 2020 was postponed for a whole year and thus the 2020 games were carried over to the year 2021. Then there was the crucial decision of not allowing overseas spectators to visit Japan for the whole duration of the games. This raised the prospect of holding the events at various venues keeping the galleries empty. However, concerning Japanese spectators, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo Olympic organizing committee have decided to defer the decision until the end of June. This prompted some to suspect that this was nothing but a ploy on behalf of the organizers for not to disclose at this stage the possibility of either holding the events in totally empty venues or postponing it once again. A second postponement will probably make it extremely unlikely for Tokyo 2020 to take place at all. Indications are all around that Japan’s COVID-19 situation is probably giving a clear hint that the prospect for holding the game is in limbo.

The COVID situation has been compounded further by Japan’s unexpected delay in vaccine rollout. This crucial program aimed at boosting virus resistance capability of citizens has been criticized as too slow and too late for the Olympic Games. The inoculation of citizens had only begun earlier this month for those aged 65 and over and many are now convinced that it would be impossible for majority of general public to be vaccinated before the games kick off on July 23. This possible disturbing scenario raises a number of questions related to the Olympics.

Olympics in recent years have become more an event where money matters more than anything else. The great gathering of top athletes from around the world was once a festival of harmony and friendship of mankind, in which spectators played no less significant role. However, with the passage of time, financial considerations and profit and loss equations have grossly undermined this earlier concept and the great celebration of humanity these days are becoming almost similar to stock markets where what only matters are the rise and fall of stock price. That’s why the organizers are so desperate for the games to go ahead, no matter if with or without spectators. They know the amount of losses they would incur in case of further postponement would be enormous and hence they are adamantly holding the position that 2020 Games should be held at any cost. However, those who do not look at the Olympic Games form such a narrow angle tends to disagree and their number is on the rise.

It was quite shocking to note that the IOC and Tokyo organizing committee have not made vaccination a requirement for athletes and officials joining the games. They probably came to a conclusion that making vaccination requirement mandatory would simply jeopardize the big event. Instead, they are now saying that necessary precautionary measures, including regular virus test, will be in place both at the Olympic village and all the venues. To ensure this the organizers have decided to test all participating athletes for the virus on a daily basis, using saliva samples.

However, some medical experts are voicing concern over staging the games at this critical time when new mutant forms of virus are spreading in many countries and Japan is struggling to cope with the situation. They are also concerned about extra Olympic precautionary measures at a time when the strain on Japan’s medical system has been increasing. It had been reported in the press recently that Japanese organizers of the games are trying to secure about 30 hospitals capable of accepting athletes and officials during the Olympics.

This concern of public health professionals was echoed recently in a remark made by Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease expert who chairs a government sub-committee on the corona virus response. Hs position was quite clear as he said a proper discussion on whether to hold the games should start without delay.

Meanwhile, a recent Mainichi Shimbun survey revealed that nine of Japan’s 47 prefectural governors think the Tokyo 2020 games should be canceled or postponed depending on the course of the pandemic situation. Of the nine prefectures, three are set to provide venues for the upcoming games.

All such recent developments show clearly that despite the upbeat mood being expressed by various organizing bodies, the fate of 2020 Tokyo Olympics is not yet a definite conclusion. Much in the coming days are to depend on how successfully Japan would be able contain the virus and put the lid on its random spread.

(Tokyo, May 5, 2021)

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