As the global resurgence in covid-19 cases reignites debate over whether to hold the Olympics this summer, focus has turned to how the fate of the Tokyo games will be decided, and what they will look like if they go ahead.
A resurgence of infections around the world and the emergence of new strains have led organizers to acknowledge that nothing is certain. Although the resumption of professional sports and arrival of vaccines have provided some optimism, leagues around the world are battling outbreaks and inoculation campaigns have been slow. Adding to the headwinds is Japan’s second state of emergency and public opposition toward hosting the event.
Speculation of a possible cancellation intensified Friday after the Times of London reported the Japanese government is seeking a way out of hosting this year. The report, which cited an unidentified member of the ruling coalition, said Japan is focused on securing the games for 2032.
“I want to flatly deny the report,” Manabu Sakai, Japan’s deputy chief cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo. Other officials also rushed to dismiss the report.
“We are determined to stage a safe Games, with thorough precautions,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told parliament on Friday, “as proof that the world has defeated the novel coronavirus and to show the world the recovery from the Great East Japan earthquake.”
The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said the parties involved were “fully focused on hosting the Games this summer.”
The International Olympic Committee is understood to have the final decision on whether the Games go ahead. Hours before the Times report, IOC President Thomas Bach told Kyodo News that he has “no reason whatsoever” to believe the Olympics won’t be held as scheduled, and insisted there was no “plan B.”
“The IOC is fully concentrated on and committed to the successful delivery of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 this year,” the IOC said in an emailed statement following the publication of the Times report.
However, cracks in existing plans have already begun to emerge in recent weeks, as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic planning committee and IOC consider cutting the number of participants at the opening and closing ceremonies, after Tokyo saw daily infections spike to a record earlier this month.
The new virus strain has also triggered tighter border restrictions and could complicate the arrival of athletes. The testing regime, quarantine procedures and securing of hospital space for potential participant infections may also be impacted if infections remain high.
A decision may come by March, the month Japan is set to hold the Olympic Torch Relay. That’s the month the delay was announced last year, even before Japan declared its first emergency. The end of March also marks the start of final preparations, according to the Tokyo 2020’s roadmap for the delayed games, shifting to a “games-time” structure, test events and the arrival of athletes.
Here are the main factors that will weigh on the final decision:
– Criteria: The IOC has not indicated what criteria, if any, would be required for the games to go on. Professional sports have resumed in countries with more severe outbreaks than Japan’s, with the Australian Open set to begin soon despite several cases found among players. But some experts said that with an event as large as the Olympics, controlling the pandemic is a must.
“The pandemic should be contained before the Olympics is held,” said Yoshihito Niki, a professor of infectious diseases at Showa University’s School of Medicine. “That should be one of the conditions. It’s not just a matter of Japan, but it’s a worldwide issue.”
– Spectators: Even if the games go forward, the most pressing issue will be whether to allow spectators from overseas, or even Japan. IOC member Dick Pound told Kyodo News Thursday that he thinks there is a “very, very good chance” that the games can go on in some form, which could mean athletes only.
“The question is, is this a ‘must-have’ or ‘nice-to-have.’ It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must-have,” he was reported to have said. The Tokyo 2020 committee told Bloomberg News that a limit on fans would need to be decided by spring for ticket refunding reasons.
– Politics: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose fledgling government faces falling approval ratings as infections climb, has also repeatedly said he is determined to hold the games, despite the rising price tag and the public’s concerns.
Suga has staked his premiership on walking the tightrope between containing the virus while keeping the economy mostly open. Such political considerations could mean that officials will try to wait it out in the hope restrictions and warmer weather help quell outbreaks.
“Money is not the issue,” said Dr. Taisuke Matsumoto, an associate professor at Waseda University and lawyer specializing in sports law. “If they can’t hold the games, his leadership may be questioned, and it could trigger a political power shift.”
– IOC: The IOC gets the final word on the games under the terms of the Host City Contract, according to Matsumoto. He cited their decision to move events such as the marathon to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido due to heat concerns, despite saber-rattling from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
But a decision on the magnitude of cancellation is not something the IOC would make without taking into account the domestic situation, he said. Last year it was former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who suggested the unprecedented move of a delay to IOC chief Bach.
– Athletes: Another question is whether athletes, who will want to be in peak physical condition to compete in one of the most prestigious events in sports, will be willing to take risks that could impact their bodies in the pandemic environment.
For those who choose not to be vaccinated, the prospect of traveling to Japan and within the country raises the risk of infection. At the same time, there may be concerns that vaccines, which can cause temporary side-effects, might be physically detrimental.
Even so, there are no signs so far of athletes giving up on the games. Health protocols and the resumption of professional sports may have changed the equation since 2020.
Jon Omori, a former U.S. gymnast who is advising the country’s teams in Tokyo, said the athletes he has spoken to “want to do this because we’ve trained for the last four years.”Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, was reported to have told local media that decisions on the games will likely be made around March, when they can better anticipate the virus situation in the summer. His office denied he had made such remarks, and said it was seeking a correction.
A failure to exit the current state of emergency could complicate planning and pressure officials to make some tough decisions. While Japan’s emergency is currently set to run until Feb. 7, it could be extended, and Japan’s top virus adviser Shigeru Omi has said it may last until April.
“We can’t give a forecast for what the situation will be for July and August,” said Norio Sugaya, a visiting professor at Keio University’s School of Medicine in Tokyo and a member of a World Health Organization panel advising on pandemic influenza. “There is concern about a coronavirus variant, and it will be difficult to invite visitors from all over the world. They shouldn’t wait until March to decide.”