Olympic cancellation spectre haunts Tokyo, one year before postponed Games

23 July 2020 - 09:32 By AFP
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike speaks during a media interview in Tokyo on July 5, 2020.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike speaks during a media interview in Tokyo on July 5, 2020.

Japan holds subdued celebrations on Thursday to mark one year until the postponed  2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, with the coronavirus pandemic raising stark concerns about whether the Games will go ahead.

In Tokyo, which should have been buzzing with thousands of athletes and fans by now, organisers will hold a small event at an empty National Stadium after the public were barred following a new surge in infections.

Olympic countdown boards have been quietly reset around the capital, where digital signs display the message "365 days to go to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics".

Despite the setbacks and the downbeat mood, Japanese and Olympic officials have not wavered from the message that the Games will go on, serving as a symbol of the world's recovery from the virus.

"They will be the first worldwide gathering after the coronavirus," International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Thomas Bach insisted last week.

However, experts and officials -- including Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- have raised the prospect of the first peace-time cancellation of the multi-billion dollar Games if the pandemic is not under control by next year.

The historic decision in March to delay the Games came as the real scale of the pandemic was emerging and countries imposed lockdowns that threw training into chaos and forced the cancellation of qualifiers and test events.

Since then, restrictions have been eased across much of Europe as infections and deaths from the virus decline, but elsewhere -- including in the United States, Brazil and India -- the disease remains rampant.

And in places where lockdowns have ended or countermeasures been eased, the virus has often come roaring back, raising questions about the feasibility of an event involving tens of thousands of people arriving from around the world.

- Public sentiment dips -

Public sentiment in Japan also appears less than optimistic, with two polls in July showing the majority of Japanese think the Games should be postponed again or cancelled altogether.

Only somewhere between one quarter and a third of respondents in the polls thought the Games should open as scheduled on July 23, 2021.

"I'm afraid about the situation even next year," said Sachiko Ahunwan, a 50-year-old department store employee.

"It's unclear how far the coronavirus can be settled," she told AFP.

But Japanese and Olympic officials have insisted that another delay is impossible.

The unprecedented one-year postponement has already caused a host of logistical and financial headaches.

One major obstacle has been cleared, with Tokyo 2020 confirming this month that it has secured all the venues originally contracted for the Games.

Winning agreement from stadiums that were booked up long after the original Olympic date was considered among the most difficult challenges organisers faced.

With the venues set, the competition schedule has now been agreed, making very few changes to the original calendar.

"Now athletes aiming to take part in the Tokyo Olympics can set concrete goals to work toward," Tokyo 2020 sports director Koji Murofushi said last week.

- Empty stadiums? -

But much remains unclear, including the final cost of the delay, with organisers saying only that they plan a pared-down event that will involve as much cost-saving as possible.

Even the traditionally lavish opening and closing ceremonies may be scaled back.

And what measures will be necessary to prevent the spread of the virus -- assuming it has not been brought under control by next year -- also remain to be decided.

In June, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told AFP the Games would be "safe and secure for athletes and fans from abroad, as well as for residents".

But detailed discussion on virus prevention will not begin until the autumn.

How athletes and fans will arrive in Japan is also an open question given that the country's borders are closed to travellers from all but a handful of nations as part of the government's Covid-19 control measures.

Bach last week acknowledged that travel restrictions and quarantine requirements could play havoc with the Games, and he was lukewarm on the prospect of holding the event without fans.

"It's not what we want," said Bach. "We want stadia full of enthusiastic fans."