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Some Olympic officials fear 'domino effect' following North Korea exit

The Olympic rings are seen in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is seen at the Japan National Stadium in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 17, 2020. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games' coronavirus-wrought difficulties keep coming. Now, North Korea has revealed it will withdraw its athletes from the games to protect them from infection, becoming the first of the 206 countries and regions affiliated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to declare it won't attend this year's competition.

    Individuals connected to the international event have begun to express concern that the North Korean decision could have a "domino effect" on participants.

    Along with the worsening state of infections, more difficulties in preparing to host the games have emerged. The national government, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided in March, following deliberations with the IOC and other bodies, to abandon plans to accept international spectators.

    Even with these measures, skeptical views of the games this summer remain deep-rooted. Additionally, the torch relay, which was certain to heighten the country's Olympic mood and was scheduled for public display on April 13 and 14 in the streets of the west Japan prefecture of Osaka, saw that leg cancelled on April 7 amid a surge of infections locally.

    There have been additional knock-on effects for participating athletes coming to Japan, too. International swimming body FINA just announced on April 2 that it will review whether to cancel Olympic qualifiers scheduled to take place in Tokyo and elsewhere. In a further blow, North Korea then announced it will not be attending. An individual connected with the IOC told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We can't rule out a possible domino effect taking place. All we can do is hope there isn't a chain of them."

    When the games' postponement was being decided in March 2020, officials at the respective National Olympic Committees (NOC) of the U.S., Canada, Brazil and other nations stressed how difficult holding the event as originally scheduled would be. The IOC could not ignore the views of the NOCs, which have final power over whether athletes are dispatched abroad, thereby forcing the postponement of the games.

    The Moscow 1980 Games and the Los Angeles 1984 Games took place amid Cold War tensions, and the opposing countries boycotted each other's events, leading to large numbers of countries not attending. Excluding instances where countries have lost the right to attend Olympic games, or other special circumstances, all affiliated countries and regions have participated in recent events.

    Rio 2016 was also the first time ever a refugee Olympic team was in competition. An individual connected to the government said, "Whatever the intentions of North Korea, the fact remains they won't be attending. There's no doubt it damages the Tokyo Olympics."

    For IOC President Thomas Bach, too, North Korea's participation had been important as part of the games' attempt to present itself as a celebration of peace. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a women's ice hockey team comprising North and South Korean members was fielded, in part of a demonstration of improved relations between the two countries.

    Following the games, Bach also visited North Korea, and had a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Even amid the coronavirus crisis, Bach has strongly emphasized the games' value in showing unity among the countries of the world. A senior official at the Japanese Olympic Committee chimed in with this view, saying, "There was a great value behind North Korea participating, and President Bach very likely had expectations it would."

    But precisely because the country involved is North Korea, which has a history of repeated bargaining in its politics and diplomacy, many also took a dispassionate view of the development. Susumu Kawata, a professor at Osaka Institute of Technology who is also an expert in Asian regional research, told the Mainichi Shimbun: "North Korea's way of doing things is to put its intentions out there and see how other countries respond. As one part of information gathering, they are probably just waiting to see how things develop."

    A senior figure at the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee said calmly, "It would be bad if a large NOC like the U.S. said it wasn't participating, but because it's North Korea it's unlikely other countries will be following its lead."

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi and Miaki Tsuburaya, Sports News Department)

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