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OP-ED: A closer look at the Tokyo Olympics 2020

  • Published at 06:05 am July 26th, 2021

And why it matters to Japan

The much-awaited Tokyo Olympics 2020 began on July 23, 2021, with few or no spectators from home and abroad due to the covid-related “new normal.” The games were postponed in 2020 because of the global pandemic. 

A recent poll in the leading Daily Asahi Shimbun suggests that more than 80% of the Japanese population want the games either to be cancelled or postponed. Japan’s continuing struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic is the root cause of their concern.

Many of the Japanese big business circles, including SoftBank and Rakuten, voiced their concerns about the government’s decision to hold the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Even some of the Japanese companies who sponsor the Olympics called for the games to be postponed to the fall.

We know that Japan’s medical infrastructure, by any definition, is of global standard. Even though the high infection rates, especially in Tokyo and Osaka, keep the Japanese epidemiologists at alert. The vaccination programs are in action, and it is expected that all Japanese people who are willing to be vaccinated will have access to the vaccine by the end of October 2021. 

Despite public opinion being weighed against the Olympics, and growing concerns from health experts, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) remains committed to holding the games. From the very beginning, the Japanese government pushed the ball in the court of the IOC to cancel or postpone the games.

Now, under tremendous pressure from the public, the government decided that no spectators will cheer on the athletes in the Tokyo Olympics. Why Japan is determined to hold the Tokyo Olympics amidst the grave concerns of the corona pandemic is a million-dollar question. 

After winning the bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, since 2013, has spent a substantial amount of money, around more than $18 billion (including private companies) on the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Observers opine that Japan’s determination to hold the Olympics is something more than just hosting the summer games. Many in Japan consider the Olympic Games to be soft power dividends for Japan.

We recall that the Beijing Olympics 2008 marked the graduation of China to a great power status. Moreover, the next games on the global calendar are the Winter Games, to be hosted again by China -- Japan’s regional rival -- in Beijing, scheduled for February 2022. Experts think that by cancelling the Summer Olympics 2020, Japan won’t be ready to be outshined by China.

In addition to that, this mega event would also help Japan repair its relationship with neighbours such as China, North Korea, South Korea, and Russia, and strengthen relationships with other participating countries throughout the globe.

The last time Japan hosted the Summer Olympics was in 1964. The Tokyo Olympics 1964 was the first ever games to be held in Asia and Japan. Previously, Tokyo was supposed to host the 1940 Summer Olympics. They were, however, cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II, and didn’t resume until the 1948 London Olympics.

By that time, Japan had faced crushing defeats in the war and was occupied by the Allied powers, led by the United States. Therefore, hosting the 1964 Olympics was immensely significant for Japan, as it helped Japan return to the global stage as a peaceful, economically well-to-do, and self-confident nation.

For Japan, the themes of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were to project to the world about Japan’s rehabilitation and rebuilding process after World War II, its technological ability, capability to recover from enormous difficulties, and above all its warm hospitality.

It is important to mention here that nine days before the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan inaugurated the world’s fastest bullet trains -- the Shinkansen -- linking Tokyo and Osaka at speeds of up to 210 kilometres (130 miles) an hour on October 1, 1964. It is widely believed that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked the end of Japan’s post-war exile status and its return to the international arena, boosting up its global posture and prestige. 

Similarly, the Tokyo Olympics 2020 also has a symbolic significance for Japan. Since the 1990s bubble burst, Japan has experienced long economic stagnation. Japan had to face the strongest ever tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Therefore, Japan considers the 2020 Summer Olympics as a symbol of showcasing a new, revitalized Japan.

Apparently, Japan is determined to hold the Olympics to exhibit its obvious prestige, virtues, and strengths globally. Perhaps the Tokyo Olympics 2020 -- now 2021 -- cannot reinvigorate an “Olympic Economy” for Japan due to Covid-19, but it can demonstrate to the world the preparedness of Japan to host such a great sporting event.

We wish a happy and secured Olympics for Japan.

SM Ali Reza, PhD (Japan) is a Professor of Political Science, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]