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Bill Emmott: Will Tokyo Olympics unite the world or symbolize new physical divisions?

Bill Emmott (Mainichi)

The month of July has seen a strange contrast in attitudes to big sporting events in Japan and in Europe. On July 11, the final match of the European football championship was played between England and Italy in London in front of more than 60,000 fans, in a country in which the number of new daily COVID-19 cases is rising rapidly. On the same day, the Wimbledon tennis tournament also held its final matches, also in front of a full crowd of spectators. Meanwhile on July 23, the Olympic Games opened in Japan in front of no spectators at all apart from VIPs, in a country with only one-thirtieth as many daily cases per million people as the U.K., and a lower death rate, too.

    Of course, differences in vaccination rates are one explanation for this. Japan has been extraordinarily slow in starting its vaccine rollout, while the United Kingdom's programme was among the world's fastest. Japan has fully vaccinated less than 20% of its population whereas for the U.K. the figure is over 50%. Other European countries were slower than the U.K. but by now have nearly caught up in levels of vaccination.

    Yet this is not the whole story. And the story is rather more interesting and potentially significant than just a story of differing governmental and public attitudes to vaccines. It may well signify something about the future of globalisation, at least in the medium term.

    Let's stay with sport for the moment. What is interesting about the decision to bar spectators from the Olympic and Paralympic events is that it contrasts with policies by Japan's national baseball and football leagues during most of the pandemic. For much of that time, even when the infection rate was high by Japan's generally good standard, those national leagues permitted games to be played in front of fans, although under controlled conditions. This has varied between states of emergency, but it has still been notable.

    In Europe, most countries banned spectators from attending sporting events of all kinds from March 2020 until very recently. In May, Europe's "Champions' League" club football competition held its final in Portugal, between two English teams, in front of a full stadium, and then the European national championships were staged in front of crowds that were gradually permitted to get larger as the tournament progressed.

    It is true that the Olympics are different in some important ways. They have a global profile, so it would be more damaging to the organisers' and hosts' reputations if the games become a 'super-spreader' event. But the big difference, certainly compared with Japan's national baseball and football leagues, is that they involve foreign competitors. The real distinction that emerges between Japan and Europe is a difference in social and political attitudes to risk. And within those attitudes, there is a difference in the evaluation of foreign sources of risk.

    We all know that Americans have a higher tolerance for risk than either Europeans or Japanese, which is why it is not shocking to see U.S. baseball, golf or other sporting events held in front of big crowds, very few of whom are seen wearing masks. But also, very few, if any, of those spectators at American events will be foreigners.

    The European football tournament was an international competition, during which fans of all the participating nations crossed borders in order to support their teams, as did the teams and their officials. Controls on cross-border travel had not entirely been removed, officially, but governments exercised widespread tolerance of this travel and did not intervene aggressively to enforce quarantine rules.

    In the coming months, we shall see whether this proves to have been a mistake, if COVID-19 infections rise sharply and bring with them more hospitalisations and deaths. Yet the main conclusion that can be drawn about the European attitude is that governments and society in Europe both now consider that the main task of managing public health is a domestic one, chiefly of vaccination and guiding social behaviour, and that foreign visitors represent a smaller issue. Vaccination certificates are being introduced to regulate and permit cross-border travel, starting this month.

    Based on policy over the Olympics, we can expect a much more cautious approach in Japan to opening up its borders this year and probably next year than the European one. Japan sees the risk posed by foreign travel and foreign visitors as being high, and thanks to being an island, that risk is seen as more controllable than in Europe.

    Quite probably, however, this cautious attitude to the movement of people will very likely be seen in other East Asian countries too, whether they are islands, peninsulas or have land borders with other nations. In many East Asian countries, controls on travel have been kept tighter, for longer, than in Europe. And vaccination programmes are just as slow as in Japan.

    To European or American eyes, this attitude to foreigners can seem strange. Reports of a Tokyo hotel labelling elevators as "Japanese-only" and "Foreigner-only" makes us smile and even wonder who is being protected from whom? Among the national teams, an estimated 84% of competitors and officials are already fully vaccinated, a much higher proportion than for the population of Tokyo. But we also realise that history and culture lie behind this.

    What is more important is to wonder what this might mean for the future of globalisation. Compared with initial worries at the start of the pandemic, there has been very little retreat from globalisation anywhere in the world: no significant new protectionist barriers against trade, no real major blockages to supply chains, no new barriers to the free movement of ideas or technology. The long-running U.S.-China rivalry is proving a more important influence on the future shape of globalisation than the pandemic is.

    Yet there is one exception to this optimistic narrative, as shown by the risk attitudes discussed in this article. Barriers to the free movement of people have risen substantially. Tourism is one example, but the more important consequences can be seen in barriers to movement of students and academics between universities globally, and to in-person contacts between business-people.

    If the Olympics are a guide, barriers to such movement of students, intellectuals and business-people can be expected to stay high for a long time in both Japan and East Asia. Digital exchange can compensate for this, but not entirely. The worry should be that a new Galapagos syndrome is being developed, hindering the intellectual exchange between these nations and the rest of the world that has done so much to foster better understanding, to generate new ideas, and to build closer business, cultural and political ties. The Olympics are supposed to unite the world, but the 2021 Games may come to symbolise our new physical divisions from one another.

    (Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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