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Tokyo Olympic spectator ban marks new contradictions in IOC's warped 'festival of peace'

The newly rebuilt Japan National Stadium, which will host some of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics' biggest events, is seen in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- Just two weeks out from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the Japanese government has declared a fourth state of emergency in the host capital, and events for the games held in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures will go ahead without spectators.

    Although organizations including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government pressed ahead under the foregone conclusion that the Olympics would be held, they have been forced to make huge changes over how to handle spectators, one of the foundational considerations in managing the games. With domestic opinion split, organizers have continued their haphazard preparations.

    The official decision on a fresh state of emergency declaration in the host city came on July 8, shortly after the arrival of IOC President Thomas Bach in Japan. Images of him waving to reporters as his car pulled into a Tokyo hotel were greeted with little warmth on Twitter. One user wrote, "It'd be better if you'd not come," while another tweeted, "The absolute worst timing."

    "The answer is absolutely yes," IOC Vice President John Coates said when asked at a May press conference if the games could be held even during a state of emergency. Kazuhiro Tateda, a professor at Toho University and member of the government's COVID-19 subcommittee, said: "I don't think Tokyo can hold the Olympics under conditions where it is also under a state of emergency; it cannot be done."

    But with the criteria to decide on the games and who holds responsibility for the decision remaining vague, it has been done. Holding the Olympics amid a pandemic has effectively been approved.

    The ultimate hosting authority surely lies with the IOC, but it has averted its gaze from the option to envisage the absolute worst outcome and cancel the games. In March 2020, the IOC authorized the first Olympic postponement in history, but even this was originally a proposal from the Japanese side.

    Following the decision, whenever Bach was asked about a timeframe for judging whether to actually go ahead with the games, he would maintain that the questions were premature, and continually put off a conclusive ruling.

    By all rights, the meeting of the five organizing entities held immediately after the Japanese government's decision to declare another state of emergency should first and foremost discuss whether to actually hold the games.

    Bach has repeatedly trumpeted the worth of the games as a "light at the end of this dark tunnel," but what has really hung over his organization are concerns for another kind of worth: capital. The games are increasingly bloated by financial support from American and European media companies' broadcasting fees and corporate sponsorship from across the world.

    The situation is such now that not even the organizers can stop the process leading to the foregone conclusion the games will be held. It has also been pointed out that if the host city were to come out and say it will cancel the games, it would be on the hook for huge amounts in compensation.

    Regarding whether to accommodate spectators, the ultimately risk-averse IOC has portrayed itself as a bystander in deliberations. Through its stance maintaining that the ball is in Japan's court, it has gone no further than confirming any decision taken by Japan's government, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

    The IOC has kept the Olympics alive by letting the games migrate once every four years to one of the world's major cities, and pushing the burdens of holding the games onto hosts in the name of a "festival of peace."

    But hosting costs for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics ballooned to a historic 5 trillion yen (about $45.5 billion), and the number of cities bidding for the events has fallen precipitously. In 2014, the year after Bach assumed the IOC presidency, the committee published its Olympic Agenda 2020 outlining new guidelines on managing future games.

    Among the recommendations intended to drive down costs were to hold events across wider areas and multiple cities, and to actively use existing infrastructure for sports. Tokyo was supposed to be the model for this change in approach, but the Board of Audit of Japan estimates Tokyo 2020, when associated costs are included, will come in at over 3 trillion yen (some $27 billion). Costs relating to infection control are in addition to the figure.

    The declaration of a fresh state of emergency means eateries can no longer serve alcohol, and that the lives of residents are hugely affected once again. A games-connected individual who participated in Tokyo's bid, too, has confided, "Just thinking about the games now makes me feel depressed."

    That is the shape now assumed by these warped Olympics, one that even Japanese residents are cast out from.

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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