TOKYO – Three-time Olympic champion gymnast Kohei Uchimura wants the postponed Tokyo Olympics to happen next year. But he's also talked openly about the skepticism in Japan where enthusiasm is muted by health risks, billions of dollars in taxpayer bills, and questions why the Games are a priority amid a pandemic.
Polls over the last several months show Japanese — and Japanese companies — are divided about holding the Games, or doubtful they should be held at all.
“Unfortunately, 80% of the Japanese don’t believe that the Tokyo Olympics can take place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Uchimura said after a one-day exhibition gymnastics meet last weekend.
“I would like people to change their minds from: We can’t hold the Olympics to — how can we do it?”
Postponed 7 1/2 months ago, the Olympics have been rescheduled to open on July 23, 2021. Despite the public's ambivalence, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers have unwavering support from Japan's ruling party and Tokyo's municipal government. The messaging is molded around the Games overcoming the odds — a heroic endeavor by Japan to lift global spirits, thanks to the Olympics.
Should Japan fail, Asian rival China would take the stage six months later with Beijing's Winter Olympics opening Feb. 4, 2022.
But there is a tiny murmur of resistance to the Olympic behemoth, particularly as the virus spikes around the world.
There are fears of letting 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes enter Japan, joined by tens of thousand of officials, coaches, VIPs and media; not to mention the possibility of allowing foreign fans to attend.
“We should be talking about whether the Games are something we should forge ahead with in this way,” Genki Sudo, a national legislator, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Sudo, a former mixed martial artist, wrestler and kickboxer, argues the Olympics won’t be fair to the athletes. Some can practice, but many can't because of the pandemic. He even half-jokingly suggested the Games should be held remotely, like a Zoom meeting.
“If the training environment is so different, is that fair? It’s absolutely not fair,” Sudo said at his Parliamentary Upper House office adorned with pull-up bars.
About 57% of the qualification spots for Tokyo have been filled. Matt Smith, the head of World Rowing, said a few days ago that completing the qualification was "really getting urgent.”
Tomoko Tamura, a lawmaker with the opposition Japanese Communist Party, wants to have the Olympics but said a safe vaccine may not come in time. Organizers say they can hold the Games, vaccine or no vaccine.
Some have suggested that healthy athletes should not be a priority for any vaccine. Can athletes refuse a vaccine and still compete? What if the vaccine makes an athlete ill days before the event?
Japan has kept infections in check with fewer than 2,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, though it's undergoing a mild spike. Incoming travel has been mostly halted, but it's sure to change for Olympic athletes and staff.
IOC President Thomas Bach is to meet next week in Japan with new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori, and probably any local sponsor that needs convincing the Olympics can still deliver. Local sponsors have chipped in $3.3 billion to fund the Games, at least twice a much as any previous Olympics, driven by the Japanese advertising company Dentsu Inc.
Bach was asked on Wednesday in Switzerland if contingency plans for canceling the Olympics would be discussed in Tokyo.
“No,” he replied.
Bach called off a visit to South Korea last month because of the pandemic's spread in Europe. He may be met by a small “unwelcoming committee” when he gets to Tokyo.
About 30 anti-Olympic protesters showed up Sunday outside the gymnastic event. They distributed leaflets and warned Bach in their handout that they would be around when he arrives "to deliver our message to cancel the Olympics.”
Sonja Ganseforth, a researcher at the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo, has written about the anti-Olympic movement in Japan. Protesters say the Olympics have diverted billions from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster recovery. In addition, they oppose the overwhelming use of public money and argue the Olympics landed in Japan because of an IOC vote-buying bribery scandal.
“Once the decision to hold the Olympics in Tokyo had been made, many (Japanese) also considered it anti-social or even unpatriotic to protest openly against the Games," Ganseforth said in an email.
“Anti-Olympic protests in Japan are not an entirely new phenomenon," she wrote in a paper entitled “The difference between zero and one.”
Ganseforth said there were .protests when Nagoya bid for the 1988 Olympics, which eventually went to Seoul. She wrote that opposition was silenced before Nagano was awarded the 1998 Winter Olympics. Bid records disappeared after the award amid widespread accusations of bribery.
Olympic finances say the Games must go on — particularly on television, which pays most of the bills.
The IOC generated 73% of its income of $5.7 billion over the latest four-year Olympic cycle from selling broadcast rights. American network NBC pays well over $1 billion for every Olympics.
Tokyo organizers say they are officially spending $12.6 billion to stage the Games. However, a government audit last year said the amount was likely twice that large. All but $5.6 billion is public money.
Over and above this is the cost of the one-year delay, estimated in Japan at $2 billion to $3 billion. The IOC has said it will chip in about $650 million in Japan toward the postponement, but has offered few specifics.
A recent University of Oxford study said these are the most expensive Summer Olympics on record. Those were calculations made before the pandemic.
Ryu Honma, who has written several books critical of the Olympics and Dentsu's ties to Tokyo's bid, said the Games will be a farce.
“What has to happen is a taxi has to pick up athletes as they arrive at the airport, so they will get quarantined in the Athletes' Village," he told AP. "They won't be allowed to have any exchanges. because otherwise the Athletes' Village may become an infection cluster. If you do all this, then maybe it's possible to hold the Games, but where are the principles of the Olympics?”
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