The Olympics begin in Tokyo on Friday, just as Covid-19 sweeps the city for the fourth time, and a year after the Games were originally scheduled to begin.
Despite the latest alarming rise in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations in the city’s metropolitan area, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has reiterated his determination to move forward with the Games. declaring in a session of the International Olympic Committee celebrated on July 20 that “the Games can be carried out successfully, with the effort and wisdom of the people.”
But many Japanese do not believe him or take his words with a pinch of salt. On the one hand, many people are tired of hearing Suga’s exaggerated rhetoric emphasizing the importance of the Games. For example, he has previously said more than once that the Olympics will be held as “proof that humanity has defeated the new coronavirus.”
Despite the pronouncements, the Suga administration has struggled to deal with the coronavirus. The more cases of infection rise, the more Suga’s disapproval ratings rise. A national Asahi-Shimbun Survey found that his disapproval rating rose to 49% on July 17-18, the highest since his cabinet was formed in September 2020. Consequently, his approval rating fell to 31%, about 30% of the ” danger zone “that political observers see as an indicator of an impending change of government.
A great question arises. Why has Suga been so insistent on his plans to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics as the pandemic rages, and even as his approval ratings plummet? The short answer: this is a political gamble.
Suga is counting on the Tokyo Olympics to boost his approval rating ahead of the general elections for the lower house and the Liberal Democratic Party election for presidential leader, to be held this fall. Suga hopes that public enthusiasm for the Games will reach a fever pitch as Japanese athletes begin to earn gold medals.
His optimism, however, is not shared by some in his cabinet. “In terms of national security, I don’t see any reason to hold the Olympics, as we are now facing a national crisis,” one of Suga’s deputy ministers told me, adding that the real problem with the Games was the question of its funding. and the selfish desire of the Suga administration to be able to say “we made the Games a success” before the elections.
No one is sure how successful the Tokyo Olympics can be, especially against the virulent Delta variant. Tokyo 2021 could become a wide-spread event. Suga is making a dangerous political gamble, and he’s also gambling, with the health and lives of the people of Tokyo and Japan, as well as the tens of thousands who will be traveling to the Games.
The bet so far seems that it will not pay off. The vast majority of Japanese people have a very cynical view of the Games. In other Asahi Shimbun Survey, 55% opposed the celebration of the Olympic Games with only 33% in favor. Furthermore, 68% said they do not believe Suga’s promise that the Olympics will be “safe and secure.” Only 21% said they felt it could be.
This lack of enthusiasm is based on a series of Olympic scandals that have come to light. After Zaha Hadid Architects of Great Britain won the competition to build the new Tokyo National Stadium, their design was scrapped due to high costs in July 2015. The official Games logo was also scrapped in September 2015 after weeks of accusations of plagiarism called the work of its designer Kenjiro Sano in discredit. In 2019, Tsunekazu Takeda resigned as chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), following bribery allegations linked to the success of the Games bid. And Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister and then chairman of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, resigned in February 2021, following backlash over sexist comments that suggested, among other things, that women talk too much at meetings. More recently, Kentaro Kobayashi, the director of the opening ceremony, was fired the day before the ceremony due to a joke about the Holocaust he made during a comedy show in 1998. Both Japanese and foreign media have reported that the Tokyo Olympics are “damned”.
The soaring price tag of the Games has also diminished public support for the event, which has now reached over 3 trillion yen (£ 20 trillion) and will become the most expensive Summer Olympics in history. Japan’s public debt stands at 266% of GDP – the highest in the world and twice that of the US Many fear that the cost of implementing countermeasures against the coronavirus to ensure the Games are safe will add to a growing national deficit. For more than a decade, Japan has spent hundreds of trillions of yen to stimulate the economy and overcome three major national crises: the Lehman shock in 2008, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Another big reason why many Japanese are against the Games is that Japan lags far behind many other countries in vaccinating its population, which is the oldest in the world. Many strongly believe that the Japanese government should dedicate its efforts to launching the vaccine, rather than the Olympics. As of July 22, Japan is ranked 69th in the world for those who have received two vaccines, with only 23.3% of the total population fully vaccinated.
The country simply hasn’t strategically prepared for the Games in terms of vaccine launch and infection control. Instead, for the past year, Suga has sung the praises of the Games while overlooking the imperative, taken more seriously in many other countries, to vaccinate the people he is charged with ruling. Now Japan must learn its lessons from the bitter experience of the Tokyo Olympics, and in doing so, hopefully the nation’s body politic can heal.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism