Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Recovery Games to open under the shadow of pandemic

Tokyo 2020, as the Games are still branded, are the first Olympics to be belatedly held. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It was Oct 10, 1964.

Singapore would not be independent for another 10 months. Elvis Presley and Bruce Lee were at the apex of their careers.

Under clear cerulean skies and with the mercury at a breezy 20 deg C, that autumn day belonged to Tokyo. The world's attention was on the Japanese capital for the opening ceremony of the 18th Summer Olympic Games - never mind the seasonal misnomer.

In just 19 short years since its defeat in World War II, Japan had risen from the ashes of war and its status as a Third World backwater to become a technological marvel.

It was nothing short of transformative for the first city in Asia to host the sporting event.

There were new high-rises and highways, while the shinkansen bullet train began service just nine days earlier, connecting Tokyo to Osaka half the country away.

Aware of cultural and language barriers, Tokyo introduced pictograms - including toilet signs - that would become the world standard as a universal language.

The country stood united and the air crackled with excitement as 19-year-old Yoshinori Sakai jogged up the 163 steps of the Japan National Stadium to light the Olympic cauldron.

He was born in Hiroshima on Aug 6, 1945, just after the atomic bomb levelled his city. Who better to epitomise Japan's commitment to reconstruction and peace?

The Olympics, a time of tremendous national pride, was a smashing success. It marked Japan's ascendancy to becoming a major economic power.

Tokyo's leaders are now hoping the 32nd Summer Olympic Games, which open today, will bring an equally transformative experience. They want to reassert Japan's influence on the global stage amid China's rise.

As then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe triumphantly described after Tokyo won the bid in 2013: "Japan is back."

And in pitching the Olympics as the "Reconstruction Games" in its candidature, they want to show the world how the Tohoku region in north-east Japan - battered by the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster - has recovered.

The "Recovery Games" tagline has taken on added meaning, as the country's leaders pitch the event as the proverbial light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Japan's leaders are hoping for a major feel-good soft power victory in bringing inspiration to billions suffering worldwide.

While the loss of the immediate tourism windfall from a ban on spectators is inevitable, they hope that pushing ahead with the event can earn goodwill that will pay off over the longer term.

Yet, the Games - a bloated sporting spectacle at this point in time - is dividing the country between those who want them to go ahead and those who have turned against them.

Pedestrians in front of an Olympic Games signage in Tokyo on Wednesday. The Japanese capital logged 1,979 coronavirus cases yesterday in a six-month high, and many in the country have started to question the priorities of Prime Minister Yoshihide Sug
Hiroshima-born Yoshinori Sakai jogged up the 163 steps of the Japan National Stadium to light the Olympic cauldron on Oct 10, 1964, epitomising Japan's commitment to reconstruction and peace. PHOTO: AFP

What's at stake

Tokyo 2020, as the Games are still branded, are the first Olympics to be belatedly held.

The Summer Games have been cancelled only three times since the founding of the modern Olympics in 1896 - in 1916 (Berlin), 1940 (Tokyo/Helsinki), and 1944 (London).

In Mr Abe's enthusiasm to host the Games, he had looked no further than his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi who, as prime minister from 1957 to 1960, was instrumental in getting Tokyo to win the bid and host the 1964 Games.

Likewise, Mr Abe invested plenty of political capital in bidding for the Games, recalling with nostalgia his memories of attending the 1964 Olympics as a 10-year-old. He personally made a charismatic pitch to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2013, saying that Japan was a "passionate, proud and strong believer" of the Games and that the Fukushima crisis was "under control" with no health-related problems.

But Covid-19 has upended Japan's best laid-out plans.

Mr Abe, who is no longer premier, will no longer attend the Olympics he lobbied so hard for.

Last year, when Mr Abe and the IOC decided to postpone the Games by a year, they said they wanted the event to be held in a "complete form", with athletes competing at the highest level in front of fans in the stands.

Yet, athletes are now confined to the pressure-cooker environment of the "Olympic bubble", though it is loosely enforced and many delegations are reportedly breaking the rules, prompting organisers to threaten tougher measures.

Spectators have been barred from attending.

The attention on Tohoku has also been diluted, though Fukushima was where the first Olympic competition was held on Wednesday when Japan trounced Australia 8-1 in softball.

Meanwhile, the budget is expanding by the day. Costs to hold the Games had, even before the postponement, ballooned to US$12.6 billion (S$17.2 billion), while the year-long delay added US$2.8 billion to the bill.

Audits suggest that even more has been spent, with little means to recoup the spending.

Tokyo has lost an estimated US$800 million in ticket revenue when it barred domestic and international fans.

Torch relay runners attend a torch kiss event after their relay on a public road was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic at Hasunuma Seaside Park in Sammu, Japan on July 1, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Separately, the determination to hold the Games at the expense of smaller-scale, once-in-a-lifetime milestones for many Japanese, including coming-of-age day and graduation ceremonies, has added to the resentment.

Many around Japan - and especially in Tokyo - who are doubtful of the government's pandemic response and struggling to make ends meet have started to question the priorities of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the IOC.

Adding to their concerns is the growing Covid-19 case tally in Tokyo, which logged 1,979 cases yesterday in a six-month high.

Dr Shigeru Omi, who heads the government's panel of medical experts, has blatantly said that it was "not normal" that the Games were going ahead in the pandemic.

Key business leaders have also weighed in, with SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son saying that Japan had "a lot to lose" and Rakuten chief Mickey Mikitani calling it a "suicide mission".

Japan Olympic Committee executive board member Kaori Yamaguchi wrote that the Games "have already lost meaning and are being held just for the sake of them".

Even Emperor Naruhito is said to have signalled his concerns over the Games. He is set to open the Games tonight as honorary patron of the Olympics and Paralympics.

In this fraught atmosphere, many Japanese are wondering: Why are they being asked to make a sacrifice? Is the stagecraft even worth it any more?

The heat factor

What has changed since 1964 is the growing influence of the IOC, which has granted itself "supreme authority" in all Olympic matters in its charter. Contracts heavily favour the IOC at the expense of host cities, which have very little wiggle room and are laden with a massive bill if they pull out.

The host city contract clearly states: "In case of withdrawal of the Games by the IOC, or termination of this contract by the IOC for any reason whatsoever, the city... hereby waives any claim and right to any form of indemnity, damages or other compensation or remedy of any kind."

Yet, even before Covid-19 struck, heat was a key concern for the Games' organisers.

The invisible threat, exacerbated by climate change, killed more than 1,000 people across Japan in the summer of 2018 and more than 1,000 again in the summer of 2019. Athletes reportedly struggled in Olympic test events at the time.

Other than the heat, the months of July to September are typhoon season in Japan, although major storms are rare around Tokyo.

When the decision was made in March last year to delay the pandemic-hit Games by a year, there were hopes that they could instead be held in the cooler months of spring or autumn, as was the case in 1964.

But the IOC's calculations apparently weighed in favour of the interests of its top broadcast partner NBC, as broadcasters are its paymasters, accounting for 73 per cent of its revenue. July and August are typical voids in sports programming in the United States.

The Japan Meteorological Agency has forecast that this year's summer will be "hotter than average". PHOTO: AFP

To avoid Tokyo's brutal heat, it was decided in 2019 to move the marathon event 800km north to Sapporo in Hokkaido. Yet, temperatures in Sapporo on Sunday reached 35 deg C - its highest reading in 21 years.

The Japan Meteorological Agency has already forecast that this year's summer will be "hotter than average".

All this makes Tokyo's claims in its candidature bid ring hollow. It had said: "With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best."

Whether this was sheer wilfulness or plain ignorance, Tokyo would have been aware of the IOC's commercial interests in overstating its bid.

NBC has now forecast that this year's Games will be its "most profitable yet".


And then there is the long string of scandals.

French prosecutors are investigating Tokyo's bid to host the Games, suspecting bribery.

In 2015, the initial design for the Japan National Stadium, awarded to the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, was abruptly scrapped after it was widely mocked. Organisers held a new design competition, won by home-grown architect Kengo Kuma.

Then came allegations of plagiarism - that the Games logo was copied from the logo design of a Belgian theatre company.

While designer Kenjiro Sano insisted that his work was original, he confessed to having copied material for earlier projects, and his logo was canned.

In February, Tokyo 2020 committee chief Yoshiro Mori resigned in ignominy over discriminating remarks against women.

A month later, creative head Hiroshi Sasaki resigned from the opening and closing ceremonies after he suggested that Ms Naomi Watanabe, a popular Japanese plus-sized comedienne, should dress up as a pig in an "Olympig" concept.

Last week, IOC president Thomas Bach ignited fury - first when he said there was "zero risk" of Covid-19 spread at the Games despite reports of lax oversight, and then when he referred to the Japanese people as "Chinese".

And this week alone, there have been three departures.

On Monday, Olympic composer Keigo Oyamada resigned over accounts in a 1995 magazine article that he had bullied his classmates with disabilities. Tokyo 2020 organisers said that his scores will not be used at the ceremony.

One day later, a children's book author who goes by the pseudonym Nobumi pulled out of the Games' cultural programme, following an uproar over his offensive views about kids with congenital disorders.

And just yesterday, on the eve of the Games, Tokyo 2020 organisers sacked Mr Kentaro Kobayashi, director of the opening and closing ceremonies, after it emerged that he had poked fun at the Holocaust in 1998 when he was part of a comedy duo.

With the image of the Tokyo 2020 Games sullied, a series of sponsors such as Toyota and Panasonic are keeping a low profile.

Still, the show will go on tonight.

It is a risky gambit - one that may very well pay off for Prime Minister Suga, who must call a general election by October - if Japan can bask in glory from a successful run of the Games.

He will surely be hoping that the legacy of the Games will not lead to his political downfall.

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