Madrid (Brussels Morning) As the pandemic rages on, large scale sporting events push forward across Europe and South America, leading the way for the biggest worldwide events to take place in July: the Olympics and Paralympics. Set to begin in a few short weeks, there is a public outcry from many citizens, public health officials and even apprehension from the Japanese Emperor himself. So why would Tokyo go forward with the event?
The International Olympic Committee is making sure that they do.
All major 2020 sporting events were rescheduled – and presumed safe to hold – in 2021, “presumed” being the operative word. A year ago, borders closed and Japan is yet to reopen for tourism. The games do pose a significant public health risk, but the IOC is not calling for the cancellation of the Games. Should Japan take that decision, Tokyo could theoretically be sued.
The Delta variant and continued restrictions
The games mark the first large movement of foreigners to the state of Japan since early 2020. Within days of the first arrivals of athletes and their teams, the more contagious Delta variant was identified. The country’s vaccination rollout remains comparatively slow and strict lockdown measures are gradually and grudgingly being eased.
Former US Olympic silver medallist swimmer and now public health official at Johns Hopkins University, Tara Kirk Sells, hopes the measures in place mean the games can take place safely.
“High vaccination rates amongst the athletes and staff will reduce the number of COVID cases coming into the country but it’s likely there will still be some. So, athletes and other people affiliated with the Olympics will be frequently tested and do a lot less mixing both within the village and with people in Japan than in previous games. The point is to prevent cases from becoming larger clusters. I don’t think that the specific sporting events should be cancelled, but I think some of the ancillary activities like sponsor parties won’t be happening.”
Risks of Olympic Super-Spreader event
The risk assessment documenting the IOC’s decision to hold the Games do not come from the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO,
“The decision on whether the Games should be held lies with the Japanese authorities and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). WHO does not participate in the development of specific risk management products, protocols, or SOPs for particular events. (For example, WHO has not contributed to writing, updating or vetting Playbooks.)”
Clearly, WHO washes its hands of the responsibility. The playbook in place errs on the side of caution, limiting social interaction such as use of public transport and even singing, prescribing plenty of hand sanitizer, but does not require vaccinations or quarantines. Since the third update, the members of Ugandan team tested positive for covid, of the delta variant. Japan proposed more rigorous testing and enhanced restrictions upon arrival.
An infectious disease epidemiologist at the nonprofit research institute RTI International, Dr Pia MacDonald, tells Brussels Morning that continuing with the games is not without risk. “Any mass event is a possible super spreader opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mass movement of athletes and fans from around the world pose significant risk of moving the virus (and variants) quickly around the world as people travel to and from Japan.”
COVID woes, but the show must go on
Around 80,000 volunteers are needed to put the games on and the prospect of whether 10,000 Japanese spectators will be in the stands watching remains on the table. While the athletes and team members may be vaccinated, there is still a substantial risk since so many people will also migrate to Tokyo from other regions of Japan.
“Having any unvaccinated people participating in any way in the Olympics is a risk to the individual and others” notes Dr MacDonald. For context, MacDonald evokes the 2020 experience of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in North Dakota, which brought participants from many areas of the United States, resulting in the rapid expansion of infection rates.
While Japan should arguably call off the games due to the health risks involved, they will not do so. In submitting their multi hundred million dollar bid for the Games, Tokyo agreed to the terms and conditions of the contract. To breach the contract by cancellation risks triggering an IOC lawsuit.
NBCUniversal paid the IOC $4.38bn for US broadcasting rights of the games from 2014 to 2020, Reuters reports. According to Variety Magazine, the US market fetched $1.25bn in advertising revenue for 2020 and they are working to ensure the support for 2021.
While money has been refunded on 600,000 tickets, Japanese sponsors have still paid over $3bn to sponsor the games. At this point, not hosting the Games will hurt the wallets of very important people and businesses, something the IOC is not willing to risk.
The economics of the Olympic games are rarely of benefit to the hosting city according to Andrew Zimbalist. As a Smith College Economist and Author of Circus Maximus: The Economical Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, Zimbalist knows a thing or two about the subject at hand.
“Hosting the Tokyo games will cost the organising committee $4-5bn, which Includes anything from transport logistics for 200+ teams to room and board, healthcare, facilities maintenance and infrastructure. Security will require a couple of billion. When you add it all up, the operational costs of the seventeen days is equal to the additional revenue coming in. So, hosting the games is not an economic issue, except the IOC can take Tokyo to Swiss courts if it cancelled the games. That would be problematic for the IOC but the threat alone creates a crisis of accountability from the organising committee and all the way to PM Suga.”
The International Olympic Committee was formed in 1894, and is a not-for-profit organisation funded entirely by private capital and income from the games. However, the IOC committee is made up of elites, including royalty, Zimbalist notes, who allocate funds to their individual national Olympic Committees. This distribution of funds is vital to their legitimacy as “immortals,” who thereby become essential to the continued operation of national sport authorities, while they also have significant diplomatic influence due to the sports’ industry national brand value.
The 1984 Los Angeles Games remain the only profitable event of its kind and therefore an anomaly. Cities do not bid for profit but instead for the opportunity to build an international image. They hope for a follow-up boost in investment and tourism, an outcome that Zimbalist questions as always being the result.
Still, for many nations it’s been seen as an opportunity to debut their abilities to the world. Within the last fifteen years, the games have opened to the BRICS nations, which can either showcase their strengths or completely expose underlying issues facing the state, as in the case with Rio in 2018.
Fall from grace: the IOC faces a bidding depression
The games are losing favour and many cities no longer see hosting them as a cost effective or beneficial opportunity for their communities. The IOC faces an image crisis, with allegations of corruption and city-bullying for high-cost contracts.
Asked if bidding is in a period of recession, Zimbalist responds that it’s worse than that: “It’s a depression, not a recession.” An authority on the topic, he went into strong detail about the woes of recent bidding efforts, with a multitude of cities dropping out of the race for the next games.
Olympic bidding isn’t particularly democratic; regarding recent changes to the bidding structure, Zimbalist draws attention to closed-door bidding, with cities allegedly being able to offer lavish gifts and courting top members of the IOC. In recent years, it seems the biggest budget and loftiest infrastructure projects prevail, causing many cities to drop out of the bidding process altogether. Some countries and cities who do offer these projects simply do not have the means or time to deliver. Yet, that is the expectation and once the deal is made there’s no backing out, not even in a pandemic.
Allegations of corruption
Tokyo went to great lengths to host the Games. Initially, it bid for the 2014 Games which would have landed on the 50th anniversary of their last hosting. 1964 was a successful nation-state marketing campaign, showing that just twenty years after World War II, the country had landed on its feet. Tokyo was highlighted as a new international hub. Losing the initial bid did not deter the city, and through an expensive second courting, the games were scheduled for Tokyo in 2020.
Allegations of corruption arose following the successful bid. Reuters reports that $8.2 million dollars was paid to a Japanese businessman, Haruyuki Takahashi, who was tasked with lobbying the IOC members and their families, notably the son of Lamine Diack former IAAF president, Papa Massata Diack, providing gifts allegedly including a $46,500 Seiko watch. The courting was reportedly funded by Japanese businessmen, not the state.
French authorities are also investigating whether $2.3 million was offered for Diack’s son’s support. The corruption trials offer a glimpse into the secret world of the IOC. The question remains: is the benefit worth the risk?
Infrastructure revival may be the biggest benefit
The Secretariat for the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 at Greece’s Ministry of Culture was the entity coordinating different government departments for the undertaking of the Games that year. In many cases, hosting can mean an opportunity for businesses, specifically construction and tourism, to flourish. These businesses can thrive thanks to infrastructure improvements of the host city, mentions the General Secretary of that year’s games, Costas Cartalis.
Using the Games as a means of reorganising and modernising the infrastructure of the city rather than solely building for the event was the end goal. The Government organised, among other things, the development of an improved metro line to run to and from the airport and provided funds for renovation of nearly every hotel in Athens to create accessible spaces for people with disabilities. That is the true legacy of hosting the games, and often the costs are assumed to be high, but are better analysed in the years following when it becomes clear what efforts were intended for both the longterm betterment of the host city rather than just the games, he argues.
Tokyo wasn’t in it for Infrastructure
The Tokyo games are the most expensive on record, costing upwards of $15 billion to put on, with estimated numbers closer to $30 bn. While Cartalis spoke of lasting infrastructure legacy for Greece, Tokyo is one of the most advanced cities in the world.
The games were an effort to garner a sense of national identity and pride for the Japanese. When launching its bid, the country had just faced the Fukushima nuclear disaster and still faces severe economic stagnation. Hosting 2020 (which has become 2021 of course) signifies what the state hoped and still hopes to show off as another new era for the nation. As in 1964, the effort is highly symbolic.
Prime Minister Suga and other government leaders are putting their reputations on the line, with elections coming up in September for his Liberal Democrat party’s leadership. As the games grow nearer, public favour for them barely cracks 50%. Cases are surging again, making it likely Tokyo will still be under emergency measures which include restaurants closing by 8 pm, with the potential of another state of emergency on the horizon.
What will be the legacy of the games?
For athletes, Tokyo could ensure they can move forward with their lives, especially those hoping to retire, start families, or begin new careers.. It is also their moment to shine. It is disappointing they cannot have a normal Olympic experience, but from their point of view, a pandemic games may be better than none.
The games will be remembered as either a success or a failure. If it’s the latter, it could end up a as a blotch on the IOC track record, which is still trying to recover from the downturn in hosting bids and corruption allegations. It could also mean the potential political suicide for Prime Minister Suga.
If successful, it may be just the boost needed for the IOC, while the Japanese public may come around to the national pride that hosting the games was intended to instill. There is still hope that the games will be seen as a highlight of 2021, especially for the spectators watching from the comfort of their sofas.