The controversy over Tokyo’s 2021 Olympic Games

By: Caroline Crosby

Japan was primed and ready to host the 2020 summer Olympics last year. They received the usual mass of international funding and built the “Japan National Stadium” in late 2019, at the expense of a mere $1.4 billion USD. Hotels and other widespread private tourist organizations were frantic with the construction of new establishments to host the influx of overseas visitors. Tokyo was looking forward to hitting the reset button on a global stage after years of economic stagnation following the devastating loss of life and property that it endured after being struck by the Tohoku earthquake, a tidal wave, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and finally a global pandemic. 

They were ready for most of the usual contingencies, but not for what 2020 had in store with the rampant outbreak of COVID-19. As such, the 2020 games were optimistically postponed to the summer of this year. They will be held in Tokyo, from July 23 to August 8. The Paralympics will start shortly after, lasting from August 24 to September 5.

Over the past year and a half since the emergence of the pandemic, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has forged ahead selling event tickets to fans, finalizing COVID-19 precautions, and preparing to welcome hundreds of thousands of international travelers to attend this year’s games. 

What could go wrong?

A recent survey, of Japan’s willing residents, asked if they approved of the country hosting 2021’s event at all. 83% believed that it should be canceled. The numbers speak for themselves, and many residents agree that Tokyo hosting this event will endanger community immunity and deplete already scarce medical resources stretched thin by the recent surge of COVID-19 cases. Only about 2% of Japan’s population is vaccinated. 

Japan’s government has heavily relied on adherence to strong social distancing measures. In this densely populated country, these measures will be further strained by an influx of tourists from around the world, all of whom will be meeting up at sporting and entertainment venues across Tokyo and its countryside. 

Even though overseas attendees got the boot, the Olympics will still instigate mass migration and raise the risk of the pandemic’s spread. Others are concerned that Tokyo doesn’t have space in the first place – with an estimated population of 37,339,804 residents at roughly 16,121.8 people per square mile, according to the latest revision of the UN World Urbanization Prospects. 

A groundswell of residents in the event’s surrounding areas has begun sounding the alarm and protests have gained momentum. A Change.org petition recently gained traction with over 400,000 signatures calling for the cancelation of the 2021 games. 10,000 of the 80,000 local volunteers quit amidst growing concern over unsatisfactory COVID-19 precautions.

The International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) issued guidelines that were supposed to have the consultation of the World Health Organization, but seem to lack sufficient detail and focus on out-of-date science. Many critics argue that the games should be canceled entirely to keep the Japanese public safe. The Change.org petition creator, Kenji Utsunomiya explains, “Turning to the Olympics the medical resources that are facing a serious shortage even in the [present], further tormented […] healthcare professionals who are battered by corona epidemic, endangering the life and livelihood of the residents and participants in particular.”

Additionally, the sudden cancellation of event admission for international fans has not gone over well. Many have devoted funds to and planned their attendance for over 2 years now. Ticket holders now search for refunds. Many are unclear on when, if ever, their money will be returned.

Self-dubbed superfan, Everen Brown, told the New York Times: “Since we are being barred, it is only right for them to make everyone whole and refund all of the money paid…It would be real painful watching this at home on TV and knowing they have the money, and not knowing when you’re going to get it back.”

Monica Treece told the Salt Lake Tribune: “At this point they’ve held our funds for two years already, and I’m concerned it’s going to take months more to get them back again…everyone is still in the dark. We’re just waiting.” 

Personal economic status isn’t the only pressing concern here. There are widely shared fears that Japan will fare worse than other past host countries. The most recent estimate, from February of this year, dictates that while the IOC’s bid committee originally projected in 2020 that the games would cost around $12.6 billion USD, Japan’s National Audit Board assessed that the final price would jump to over $22 billion USD with approximately 75% derived from public funding.

Let’s hope that Japan escapes Greece’s previous Olympic-catalyzed fate, whose 2004 Athens games, and resulting economic loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in debt, played a major part in literally bankrupting the country. 

Almost all facilities built for Greece’s 2-month event are now derelict. The Wall Street Journal estimates that the cost of canceling the IOC’s plans, and cutting Japan’s losses now, would result in a loss of $17 billion USD. This is a steep price, but the cost of a post-Olympic emergency would be far greater both economically, and in terms of human life.

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