Can Tokyo Safely Host the Olympic Games This Summer?

Even the best-laid plans had been no match for 2020.

When TIME sat down with Yuriko Koike in late 2019, Tokyo’s governor was exuberant in anticipation of the approaching Olympic and Paralympic Video games. She capped our interview within the metropolis’s hulking Metropolitan Authorities Constructing with an impromptu tour of the rooftop viewing gallery, the place vacationers browsed caps and tees emblazoned with the Tokyo 2020 emblem. In a flash, Koike hopped a safety barrier and sat at a yellow-and-black polka-dot piano to play just a few bars of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Do you know that is Godzilla’s favourite constructing?” she teased.

The monster might hardly have executed extra harm to Tokyo than the pandemic. The Video games have been postponed, vacationers have been largely banished from the Japanese capital, and TIME’s dialog with Koike on Oct. 14 takes place at a socially distant 1,000 miles through Zoom. But her ardor remained undimmed as Koike mentioned plans for the rescheduled Video games set to run from July 23 to Aug. 8. “You may really feel the ability of sport is even stronger due to the present scenario,” she stated. “Tokyo 2020 can be symbolic to show that individuals, all collectively from the world over, have defeated the virus.”

Behrouz Mehri—Getty PhotographsIOC president Thomas Bach visits Tokyo’s Nationwide Stadium in November 2020

However at this level, that defeat is way from assured. As of mid-December, the pandemic has claimed greater than 1.6 million lives worldwide. The U.S. and Europe are witnessing grave winter surges. And although Japan has suffered solely 2,700 deaths, owing to strict border controls and ubiquitous masks, in December Tokyo raised its well being care alert to the very best degree for the primary time. Japan isn’t anticipating to roll out vaccines till March. COVID-19 will nonetheless be a actuality in July.

Little marvel some consider the chance of staging the Video games would possibly outweigh the reward. “The choice to press forward with the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 is actually a matter of life and loss of life,” says Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific College in Oregon, who research the Olympics and represented the U.S. at soccer. “We’re speaking about an non-compulsory sporting spectacle, not some important service to -humanity, and once you throw public well being into the combo, the calculus can turn out to be uncouth fairly fast.”

But, for Japan’s leaders, cancellation is just not an choice. Rival Beijing has the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is able to virtually definitely go forward as scheduled, and the symbolism could be an excessive amount of to bear had been Tokyo’s video games deserted. “That simply can’t occur,” says Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple College in Tokyo. “It might be an enormous lack of face.”

Yuriko Koike is a Japanese politician who currently serves as the Governor of Tokyo. Photographed OK!location is Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and the day is Sep 25 2019.
Kenji Chiga for TIMEYuriko Koike, Tokyo’s governor, appears ahead to the Video games, in December 2019

Postponement to 2022 can be off the desk, says Thomas Bach, the president of the Worldwide Olympic Committee (IOC). “No, the preparation of the athletes has began already, and for a few of them, it might be too lengthy to be ready,” he says. “You additionally can’t preserve the infrastructure of the Video games for such an extended time period. All this -infrastructure has a legacy. The Olympic Village can be become residences for the inhabitants of Tokyo, as an illustration.”

However even when the Olympic flame is lit as deliberate, who will come? Airline journey has cratered, that means merely getting the 15,490 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from 206 nations and territories to Tokyo is a big hurdle—not to mention the 500,000 spectators initially forecast to cheer on the 339 completely different occasions.

Then there’s the query of maintain 1000’s of officers, judges, dignitaries, journalists and sponsors secure in one of many world’s most crowded cities—not to mention placate 38 million embattled residents confronted with a possible catastrophic super-spreader occasion. Olympic chiefs haven’t but supplied solutions. For positive, testing, masks and social distancing would be the bedrock. However organizers won’t but clarify entry necessities for Japan, whether or not vaccinations can be obligatory, what number of spectators allowed into stadia, if the Olympic Village can be sequestered into bubbles, stay press conferences held and so forth. “That is work in progress,” says Bach.

It’s Tokyo’s destiny to stage the world’s largest sporting occasion a 12 months later than deliberate, at a time of world financial uncertainty and amid a pandemic that can be removed from over on July 23. Is it actually prepared? Bach, for one, has few doubts. “Tokyo is the very best ever ready Olympic metropolis. We’re very, very assured, and at this second, we’ve no cause to consider that the Video games couldn’t happen.”

Olympic village.
Kenji Chiga for TIMEThe athletes’ Olympic Village taking form, in September 2019

Japan’s Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto not too long ago stated the Tokyo Video games could be held in the summertime “at any price.” She wasn’t kidding. An Oxford College research revealed in September confirmed these had been the costliest Summer season Olympics on document. Though Japan formally earmarked $12.6 billion for the Video games, a authorities audit final 12 months put the true determine at twice as a lot. All however $5.6 billion is public cash.

The remainder comes from sponsors, who’re reportedly in search of an extra $200 million to defray the estimated $2.Eight billion prices of suspending the occasion. However many of those blue-chip backers are themselves struggling dire slumps: Japan’s ANA airline and JTB journey company posted losses of $1.Eight billion and $750 million, respectively, within the first half of this monetary 12 months. It’s additionally unclear whether or not sponsorship has retained its worth, given Beijing 2022 is quick approaching, or its perks, akin to assured admission to headline occasions. Refunds have already been sought on 18% of the 4.45 million tickets bought, in accordance with organizers.

The individuals whose taxes are serving to pay for the Video games are more and more turning towards them. An October survey by Kyodo Information revealed solely 38% of Japanese assist internet hosting the Video games subsequent summer season, whereas 31% favored one other postponement and practically 1 / 4 need them canceled altogether. Assist can be fading for the Prime Minister who inherited workplace—and the Video games—in September. Yoshihide Suga’s sagging approval ranking stems from his “Go to Journey” initiative to spice up home tourism, which is being blamed for Japan’s newest spike in COVID-19 instances. However he’s additionally making an attempt to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, who was Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister till he stepped down on Sept. 16 due to sick well being. With Japan heading to the poll field in October, Suga’s destiny could also be carefully tied to that of the Video games. “This can be a high-stakes sport for Prime Minister Suga,” says Mieko Nakabayashi, a former lawmaker and present professor at Waseda –College’s Faculty of Social Sciences in Tokyo. If prices spiral upwards and the Video games aren’t seen as a hit, she says, his “bid to lengthen and preserve his energy could also be at risk.”

The old woman of shoe polisher and pigeon at Shinbashi.
Kenji Chiga for TIMEThe outdated lady of shoe polisher and pigeon at Shinbashi.

Even earlier than the pandemic struck, Tokyo 2020 was changing into often called “probably the most jinxed Olympics,” says Kingston. The unique brand needed to be scrapped following accusations it was plagiarized from a theater in Belgium. The $2.three billion Zaha Hadid renovation of the Olympic Stadium—the costliest ever commissioned—was additionally jettisoned amid a backlash over prices and a design, in accordance with one critic, “like a turtle ready for Japan to sink in order that it may possibly swim away.” It was changed by a much less flashy $1.Four billion metal and wooden construction by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

Destructive headlines have ranged from the potential for human sewage to infect water sports activities in Tokyo Bay to how susceptible synthetic islands—-which home half the Video games venues—are to “liquefaction” within the earthquakes that frequently blight the area. Final 12 months, Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda, whereas denying wrongdoing, resigned after he admitted to greenlighting a $2 million fee to a Singapore-based consulting firm that French investigators allege was charged with shopping for IOC votes. And now, in fact, there’s a plague.

View from the Observation floor of New landmark, Shibuya scramble square . You can see the cityscape around the new National Stadium.
Kenji Chiga for TIMEEarlier than the pandemic, Tokyo was anticipating droves of vacationers in the course of the Video games

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Japan has expertise in utilizing the Olympics as a catalyst for change. The Tokyo Video games of 1964 served to salve wounds following World Battle II, rebranding this American foe turned ally as a high-tech playground. The Shinkansen “bullet practice”—the world’s first high-speed railway—was unveiled per week earlier than the opening ceremony. Rivers had been enclosed and overpasses thrown as much as join beforehand sequestered neighborhoods. The Video games had been a popping out second that helped outline town we all know as Tokyo at this time.

Japan hoped to repeat the trick this time round. Hundreds of thousands of tons of poured concrete and smelted metal inspired banks to lend and helped jump-start a moribund financial system. “The Olympics has been an excuse to open the coffers and kick-start all this development and gentrify areas of town that actually wanted a face-lift,” says Adam German, a Canadian actual property agent who’s lived in Japan for 16 years. Alterations to accommodations, public buildings and transport hubs ready Tokyo not just for bodily impaired Paralympic athletes and followers, but additionally for the creaking limbs of its personal inhabitants, the world’s oldest. Politicians hoped an inflow of overseas spectators would assist put together this homogeneous society for the relaxed immigration legal guidelines essential to deal with a extreme low-skilled labor scarcity. “We need to make the very best out of this chance to introduce as many individuals and locations to Tokyo as potential,” says Koike.

Tokyo 2020 was additionally purported to showcase Japanese recycling, expertise and sustainability. The 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals are solid from metallic parts harvested from defunct devices, together with 6.21 million cell telephones. Even the bogus islands are constructed from the by–product of Japan’s high-tech trash-burning crops. If the Video games had gone to plan, driverless automobiles would have ferried athletes between the websites; multi-lingual robots would have guided overseas guests; man-made capturing stars would have dazzled spectators on the opening ceremony. Athletes would have slept on beds constructed from recycled, although fortunately strengthened, cardboard.

The Indian-Nepalese restaurant in a shopping arcade. New Namaste Himal ASAGAYA. They like sumo wrestling.
Kenji Chiga for TIME A person watching sumo wrestling at Indian-Nepalese restaurant in a buying arcade in Tokyo.

Many of those improvements will now need to be shelved. Koike insists that the inexperienced legacy will be strengthened by leveraging the pandemic to imprint a extra sustainable format on the Video games going ahead. “Our objective isn’t just to cut back prices however present the brand new mannequin of the Olympic and Paralympic Video games,” says Koike. “This can then be handed on to future host cities, akin to Beijing, Paris and L.A.”

However in different methods, the Olympics are struggling for relevance. Past the pandemic, 2020 was outlined by campaigns for racial and social justice, particularly Black Lives Matter. Sports activities franchises from the NBA to Premier League soccer embraced the motion, whereas everybody from World Athletics president Sebastian Coe to the U.S. Olympic Committee have backed athletes’ proper to peaceable protest.

Not the IOC, although, which has up to now refused to revise Rule 50 of the Olympic Constitution that bans political demonstrations in the course of the Video games. Bach says they’re presently consulting on amendments however cites pushback from some nations’ athletes. Those that take a knee in Tokyo might face the identical sanctions as U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had been expelled from the 1968 Mexico Olympics for elevating a fist on the rostrum to protest racism. “We expect that the sphere of play and the ceremonies usually are not the place for this,” Bach says. “Athletes can specific themselves in press conferences, in social media, in group conferences, in all of the completely different occasions within the combined zones.”

That will not be sufficient for a lot of athletes who level out that the Olympics have lengthy wielded politics when it wished. Apartheid-era South Africa was banned—a sanction first applied at Tokyo ’64—whereas North Korea and South Korea had been permitted to march and compete beneath a united flag on the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. The IOC simply took the controversial step of together with break dancing on the Paris 2024 Video games, however continues to dither on the subject of peaceable protest regardless of overwhelming well-liked assist. “The IOC needs to be exhibiting management,” says Rob Koehler, director-general of International Athlete, which campaigns for athlete rights.

the Red-light-district at Shinjyuku.
Kenji Chiga for TIMEThe Crimson-light district in Shinjyuku, Tokyo

Tokyo’s supporters will level out that the buildup to each Video games is dogged by issues. Rio 2016 was beset by allegations of substandard development, endemic air pollution and kickbacks; London 2012 by unfulfilled guarantees to revive disadvantaged areas of town and McDonald’s monopoly on french fries impinging purveyors of conventional British fish-and-chips. However as soon as the opening ceremony’s fireworks explode throughout the night time’s sky, sporting prowess takes over and all individuals can recall are grinning medalists and cheering crowds.

In what was touted as a serious take a look at, Tokyo hosted its first worldwide sporting occasion for the reason that pandemic started on Nov. 8, and Yokohama baseball stadium has held video games with a near-capacity 30,000 spectators. When 30 gymnasts from Japan, China, Russia and the U.S. competed within the Friendship and Solidarity Competitors in entrance of two,000 followers, overseas contributors endured a 14-day quarantine at dwelling and had been stored in strict isolation of their resort between occasions with day by day testing. Followers had temperatures taken, and their fingers had been stored as sanitized because the ambiance: Seating was unfold out, everybody wore masks, and cheering was banned. Talking after the occasion, defending Olympic all-around athletics champion Kohei Uchimura hailed it as “a great mannequin case for different sports activities and different athletes.”

Nonetheless, this can be a Video games like no different. Lockdown measures will play havoc with coaching schedules, whereas some athletes can be compelled to withdraw after testing constructive—perhaps boosting the medal hopes of countries which have conquered the virus, or should purchase vaccines, over the poorly managed and easily poor.

Sacrifice within the pursuit of excellence outlined the Olympics lengthy earlier than politicians and sponsors nuzzled in. That’s, in any case, what conjures up tons of of thousands and thousands of sports activities followers. This 12 months the stakes are larger than ever earlier than—and the true problem will not be vaccines, border controls and empty stadia, however fulfilling a lofty mandate to “additional strengthen humankind’s bonds,” as Koike places it. A brand new starting solid in bronze, silver and gold.

— with reporting by Mayako Shibata/Tokyo and Madeline Roache/London


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