Tokyo 2020 Olympic Village 1

Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympics: Chronicle of a Japanese Failure

⏱ 12 minutes

Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games 🏅 are about to begin. As we guessed almost one year ago soon after the postponing announcement, against ominous predictions and even the Japanese people’s opinion, the Games were not canceled nor delayed again (which does not mean we are happy with the conditions under which they are to take place).

The Olympics' organization came across many hardships. The event that was expected to help Japan getting over the painful disasters of 2011 and Fukushima Daiichi’s accident, and be a token of overcoming the Coronavirus 🦠 according to the successive official communications, has accumulated so many problems that it now somehow looks like a farce.

The reality is indeed far from the expected festive event, and one may wonder:

  • Who is approving these Olympics aside the IOC, which pockets most of the revenues?
  • How will they be remembered and what will be the consequences on Japan’s image?

Let us have a (painful) look on the circumstances and errors of these Games that led to failure before they even started, and the Olympics to lose their spirit.

🙅 No spectators allowed

This is obviously the most visible pitfall, as well as a sad first in History.

On June 21, the Japanese authorities were still stating that up to 10,000 Japanese spectators could attend the sport events. A lottery was to be organized to select the ticket holders who could enter the stadiums, even though the initial purchase of the tickets went through the process of a… lottery. The final decision was announced on July 8: a surprisingly early state of emergency was proclaimed (only 3 weeks after the end of the last one) to last until August 22, and consequently the government decided to hold the games behind closed doors. The organization even urged the public not to come to the marathon in Sapporo, on the northern Hokkaido Island, chosen to avoid the summer stifling heat of the capital.

Overseas spectators had already been banned as soon as mid-March:

Sadly, Tokyo inhabitants will only be able to watch their own Olympic Games like all the spectators in the world: on the television. And the uneasiness will be palpable with no ambiance during the ceremonies or the competitions: no clapping, no cheering (even when they were still authorized, spectators would not have been allowed to shout for cheering the athletes…) Before the sanitary pass was introduced in Europe, when football or rugby matches were still held behind closed doors, recordings of cheering crowds were broadcasted to simulate the ambiance during airing. Such contrivance is unlikely to happen during the Olympics.

In addition to the ban of average spectators, Japan is also trying to reduce the number of international VIP, especially those who are to attend the opening ceremony. Their number must be reduced to less than 1,000. Only a handful of happy few will be admitted, such as the Emperor of Japan Naruhito, the U.S. First Lady Jill Biden or the French president Emmanuel Macron. Moon Jae In, the president of South-Korea, with whom the diplomatic relationships have been faltering over the past years finally announced that he would not come. Taiwan and other countries’ officials have also declined the invitation. The WHO president will nonetheless come to Japan during the Games to talk with Prime Minister Suga about the anti-Covid measures implemented.

Meanwhile, Thomas Bach, President of the Olympic International Committee, has been traveling Japan since July 8, up to Hiroshima. The Japanese population was already resentful towards him, but his resounding recent lapsus (he talked about the "Chinese people" instead of the Japanese) will not help him raise his popularity.

Lastly, at the risk of being redundant: what about the refund of tickets, that were often extremely expensive? The Japanese authorities remain surprisingly quiet on the topic, just stating that the tickets already bought will be reimbursed, without any detail provided on a timeline.

🦠 A poor control of the risk of Covid infection

In early July, when the announcement of the staging the Olympics behind closed doors was made, the Corona contamination curve in Japan was still low: a weekly average of about 2,000 new cases per day, a level that a country such as France never dropped to at constant population (however, France does test more than Japan). The reasons behind this decision are naturally the fear of Delta variant, that accounted for 1/3 of cases in Japan in mid-July, and the spectacular upticks of contamination in the countries already affected by this recent Coronavirus variant. As the other countries, Japan will probably not avoid it.

Let us however compare the handling difference with another competition whose organization faced the same challenges as the Olympics: the UEFA European Football Championship, that was postponed by a year in similar conditions. The matches were recently played with thousands of spectators: up to 60,000 in Wembley in England for the final on July 11, whereas there was a daily 32,000 new Covid cases in the country. The vaccination progresses in the United Kingdom and Japan are at the core of the difference: in the UK, about 70% of the population had already received their first shot, whereas in Japan, struggling to close the gap, only 30% had received it. The decision is much more complicated when 2/3 of a country’s citizens may develop a severe form of the disease if not vaccinated...

Meanwhile however, and to add to the Japanese organizers’ hypocrisy, baseball matches and indoor Sumo wrestling tournaments (July’s round in Nagoya just finished) were attended by several thousand spectators since the end of the first state of emergency one year ago!

However, the number of cases has been on the rise since last month, especially among young non-vaccinated, as everywhere in the world, and there is little doubt that the Olympics will be the scapegoat for the flare-up that is to come…The next 2 weeks will bring a lot of challenges and problems are likely to arise, will the IOC put the blame on the Japanese organization?

🔥 The absurd Olympic torch relay

The Olympic torch relay began in the archipelago on March 25 and arrived in Tokyo on July 9. The Olympic flame was then delivered to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike (who was just discharged of a ten-day-stay in hospital for overworking!) in the totally empty new Olympic stadium. The whole torch relay in Tokyo took place in the same conditions: out of public places and without spectators.

But the 3 and a half months of running throughout Japan were already disappointing:

  • Spectators were banned most of the times,
  • The relay was canceled in some areas (Okinawa and Fukuoka for example),
  • Staff tested positive after the torch relay (ex. in Kagoshima),
  • Many famous relay participants withdrew from the run,
  • ...

In the meantime, several local events (such as school outings or college meetings) are put on hold or canceled due to the Games. And many Japanese had to give up on their vacation as the current state of emergency extends after Obon and they naturally resent the Olympics for this.

🏃 The athletes’ bubble cage

The 44 hectares of the Olympic Village in Harumi, on Tokyo Bay, near Odaiba, are the only space where the 18,000 athletes and their staff (from 200 countries) are allowed aside the stadiums, and without their families and supporters. But the reality is that the restaurants, the fitness center, and the village’s hospital cannot really contain the athletes. They must leave the country no later than 2 days after their last performance, so they want to enjoy Japan as much as they can: they are frequently spotted walking in the streets of Tokyo or looking for partners on Tinder! As a matter of fact, they were supplied with 160,000 condoms as the tradition goes, except the organizers requested them not to use these presents in Japan… but rather keep them as a souvenir.

Another surprising fact: athletes do not need to be vaccinated to enter the Games, even though they must go through a daily salivary test during the competition. Thus, 3 new cases were discovered in the South-African soccer team living in the village one week before the Games start, with 21 contact-cases, and an American gymnast was also confirmed positive. Before that, a first cluster emerged in a quarantine hotel 🏨 where Brazilian athletes were staying.

The irony is that the Chinese athletes (as a reminder, the 2022 Winter Olympics will be organized in Beijing) do not hesitate to complain about the laxity of the Japanese sanitary measures! They indeed encounter Japanese tourists without relationship whatsoever with the Olympics, in the lobby or in their hotel’s restaurant.

As for the logistic tools provided by the Japanese side, without much surprise regarding modern technologies, they are particularly inefficient: reporting on Excel spreadsheets, no response to e-mails, apps that do not work...The referents are tearing their hair out and have to have a spirit as strong as the athletes’ to work in such conditions.

🎥 Limited movements for the few visitors

"Visitors" are of course almost exclusively the handful of accredited media that will report and broadcast the event. Even some official community managers of the Olympic Twitter accounts are not considered VIP and thus not allowed in Japan.

To make sure none of the allowed visitors break the quarantine rule, the Japanese government even asked the 55,000 duty-free shops of the country to denounce the suspicious visitorsA nice feat indeed for the country of omotenashi, the famous Japanese hospitality!

Even in the private sector, suspicion is on board. Thus, the capital’s Excel Tokyu Hotel in Akasaka decided to partition the use of their elevators in anticipation of the Olympics: Japanese and foreigners should not meet…

With the state of emergency and the 4th Covid wave in Japan, restaurants are expected to close at 8 p.m. and bars are not allowed to serve alcohol. Therefore, the famous beer gardens, one of the Japanese’s summer pleasure, have become "non-beer gardens" for the time being.

But, in the same vein as with the athletes, how to blame the 70,000 privileged foreigners allowed in Japan this summer (as the country was almost completely closed for 16 months), when the Japanese themselves do not abide to their own state of emergency anymore, nor the self-isolation rules when they come back from overseas? It would be hypocritical to try shaming anyone...

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😡 Angered professionals (especially in the tourism industry)

The smothering of the Olympic Games results in zero touristic revenues for restaurants, hotels, shops in the touristic areas (Asakusa, Ginza, and so on), travel agencies and other companies related to the hospitality industries. Tokyo’s restaurateurs and hotels, who are often still waiting for the subsidies promised by their government (when the money is indeed given), are about to lose millions of customers this summer in accordance with what was expected for 8 years...Not taking into account all the Tokyo 2020 goodies and merchandising that are likely to be thrown away.

As a matter of fact, the Japanese government's domestic anti-covid measures are at the same time very limited and particularly redundant: no circulation restriction, a slight incentive on bars and restaurants and a simple encouragement to teleworking. The discrepancy is such that a Tweet of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in mid-July faced a violent backlash. The initial post stated that Tokyo’s subways 🚇 were much quieter due to the pandemic, with a picture of an empty carriage. While it was true during the first state of emergency in spring 🌸 2020, it was not anymore in 2021, and Twitter users called out the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for spreading fake news, and the incriminated post was consequently deleted.

Some sponsors have already announced their withdrawal from the celebrations. One of the most important, Toyota, just announced that the company’s CEO will not attend the opening ceremony, and that no advertisement connected to the Olympics will be made by the brand.

Remember the encouragement to denunciation at the duty-free we mentioned above? In the same time frame, Suga’s government (not sparing weird ideas when not apathetic) envisioned requesting banks and wholesalers to denounce the bars that continued to order alcohol. Given the scandal, the back-pedaling was quick, as soon as the next day, with public apologies on top, but anyway the damage was done.

💴 Humongous costs that will not be compensated

Unlike Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, Tokyo’s Games did not plan to reuse already existing structures to stage the events, which resulted in a colossal budget: more than 15 billion dollars, of which 1 billion was spent solely for the new Olympic stadium designed by famous architect Kengo Kuma. What will be its use? Not for international promotion, as only the opening and the closing ceremonies will take place at the stadium during the Olympics.

As a reminder, the ticket for the opening ceremony was sold ¥288,000 (~US$2,546). with 68,000 seats available, you can tell the amount of revenue that disappeared solely for this evening.

Regarding the Olympic village, with the postponing of the games, the sale of its 4,145 apartments, was also postponed, with properties costing up to $1,6 million, and with financial compensation on top.

It was already hard to explain and fund the 12 billion for Tokyo 2020 Games (an amount twice the initial budget!), but today’s costs including the postponing and the general absence of return on investment will surely stick in the Japanese citizens’ craw who will have to pay for it on the long term.

Beside the financial issue, the Japanese themselves might even keep a disastrous image of international events staged in their country. The next one is Osaka International Exhibition in 2025, for which most of the expected countries are yet to confirm their participation.

🇯🇵 A tarnished image for Japan

We mentioned this in the introduction of the article: aside the marketing wreck of an event that is only punctual (although it will probably be badly remembered in the future), the long-term consequences are potentially more damaging for Japan.

As an illustration, the latest scandal to date, revealed a few days before the beginning of the games: Keigo Oyamada / Cornelius, the composer for the opening ceremonies that are supposed to praise diversity and harmony (!) declared in 1994 and 1995 interviews that he harassed and tortured young handicapped (you can read further about this story here). The case was first buried with public apologies, then Oyamada was asked to resign from his position.

Then, only one day before the official beginning, the Opening Ceremony Director was dismissed for joking about the Holocaust.

On the political level, the turns of events since the beginning of the pandemic, and especially the recent episodes we mentioned above, are catastrophic for Suga’s government. The latter already received an important setback at the last local elections in Tokyo on July 4, and the national elections on October 22 are at risk to demonstrate the population’s general exasperation and a gap that will be difficult to close, with only 36% of supporting opinions at the time of writing. Let us wager that it will help younger representatives and more women to gain momentum in a Japanese political world that is ossified and in need of some fresh air.

The only solution to save the day on the short term (but what a challenge!): that Japanese athletes win a lot of medals. We will get to know in a couple of days.

Updated on July 23, 2021 - JO de Tokyo 2021 : chronique d'un échec à la japonaise