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Can’t cancel, can’t hold – Tokyo Olympics was going to help Brand Japan, now it’s a headache

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 is a tale of loss – for many infected players, for Japan’s economy that really needed a boost, and the fight against a hovering virus.

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The Olympics was supposed to help Japan’s struggling economy and its citizens’ spirit deflated by the Covid-induced disease and destruction. It has changed the latter, but for the worse. And whether it will prove any good for the economy, with the total expenditure on the games estimated at around $15 billion and sponsor companies like Toyota refusing to run ads, seems like an afterthought right now.

Look up Tokyo Olympics online, and chances are you’ll see more bad headlines than good. ‘No spectators for Tokyo Olympics 2021 as Japan declares state of emergency’; ‘Indian athletes battling Covid-19 scare and Olympics pressure at the Games village’; ‘Drastic measures by organisers hurting young mothers, says Spanish athlete’.

The mega global event that comes around every four years — with its Summer and Winter versions spread two years apart — will be counting all its gold, silver, and bronze medals as it has always done. But keeping abreast with the tally will be the number of Covid-infected people, already over 100 with only one day of play gone by. That tells you how coloured the atmosphere is — not by those of the five Olympic rings, but by the dark, gloomy cloud of Covid and a nation adamant to host it. But Japan’s excitement of an economic windfall has long turned into a bowl of dashed hopes as it looks set to join the ranks of host countries still burdened by losses of billions of dollars.

With so much riding on the 17-day extravaganza, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week. Yes, it’s still called 2020.

And did we add that winners will have to put on their own medals this year?

Also read: 4th Covid emergency & fan-free Olympics leave Japan hotels facing 1 million cancellations

So much on the line

When Japan won the rights to host the 2020 Olympics about a decade ago, its fourth ever, it seemed like the country had struck gold. Not only was the event expected to generate economic benefits totalling about $300 billion, but it was slated to announce Japan’s return on the world map. Just like the 1964 Olympics, when Japan became the first Asian country to host the games. The hosting rights in 2013 had come just two years after Japan had passed laws to make sports a part of its national happiness programme. The proposal was called ‘The Sport Basic Plan: Activating Japan Through Sport’. Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who resigned last August because of health reasons, had even hedged his legacy on the successful completion of the Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

That pressure has now shifted onto Abe’s successor Yoshihide Suga, who knows the country went ahead with the Olympics against near-unanimous public disapproval — 83 per cent of the respondents to a survey in May said they wanted the Olympics either postponed or cancelled this year. In a way, the near-empty stadiums that will be a sore feature of the games for the next two weeks were always going to be a possibility. Not that it’s any consolation for a government forced to limit the audience numbers to 50 per cent of capacity with no entry to international visitors, and stands to lose about $900 million in ticket sales.

Even if the government can drive home the point that its hands were tied by the International Olympic Committee, which wanted the games to be held despite the Covid fears, it would be difficult to assuage the disenchanted public that is still dealing with 2,300+ daily Covid cases and a vaccination drive that picked up only recently.

In an opinion article for Kyodo News, Japanese Olympic Committee member Kaori Yamaguchi described the country’s situation saying: “We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not.”

India’s 125-member contingent, its biggest so far at the Olympics, is expected to break new grounds. A US-based statistics company Gracenote predicts India will win 19 medals in Tokyo. Here’s why that number is significant: India’s total medal tally at the games is 28. What’s boosted India’s chances is that the country will be represented in disciplines such as fencing and equestrian for the first time, not to mention how athletes navigated a quagmire-like situation brought about by Covid protocols just to train and qualify. Some, like women’s hockey captain Rani Rampal and six of her teammates, tested positive. The journey to the pinnacle of sports tournaments, just to be able to compete, hasn’t been easy.

If you are a journalist covering the event, there’s another thing coming. You’ll be given a 68-page rulebook, tests and can’t leave the ‘Olympic bubble’ for 14 days. After that, you must submit an ‘activity plan’. New York Times photographer Doug Mills took over the publication’s Instagram handle to show the 24-hour journey to Tokyo – spit tests, waiting, et al.

And yet, no virus exists in a bubble. And more cases are showing up. Ironically, a large number of Japanese people showed up outside stadiums to protest the move to hold the Olympics.

Also read: No cheering, singing, whistling — All that is different as Tokyo gets ready for Olympics

Is it all gloomy?

Sports can unify people who have all but lost hope. It has been described as a “peace tool”; its reach is known to transcend cultural and social boundaries. At any time, success and failures in a sporting event can bring people together, infusing fresh hope about the future, even if the sense is ephemeral. No wonder the Euro Cup, Copa America, Wimbledon and the French Open were watched in great numbers this year.

If not the public, Japan’s government and sporting authorities would surely hope that the 339 medals up for grabs in 46 disciplines at the 2020 Summer Olympics will set their athlete community on the path to dream big. Japan’s tally of 497 medals at the Olympics since its first participation in the games in 1912 pales in comparison to Great Britain’s, a country half its population size with nearly 900 medals.

But the 2020 Tokyo Olympics isn’t standing to the grand tradition of sport. “What started out for Japan as a grand vision and major soft power play, has turned into crisis management and damage limitation,” wrote sports academics Simon Chadwick and Paul Widdock.

There is not much Japan can do now, except work assiduously towards keeping the Covid numbers down, and making sure the players participating in the Tokyo Olympics return home with either a medal or hope to bag one in Beijing next year. There is no room for the virus in their check-in luggage.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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