TOKYO (AP) – Staging an Olympics during the worst pandemic in a century? There is a popular belief that this could not be done in a better place than Japan.
As a lively, open democracy with deep pockets, the host country is known for its meticulous execution of detailed large-scale projects, its technological progress, its consensus-building and its first-class infrastructure. All of this gives the strong impression, at least on paper, that Japan is one of the few places in the world that could even think of walking the high-profile tightrope walk that the Tokyo Games represent.
Some in Japan don’t buy it.
“No country should hold an Olympics at the beginning of a pandemic. And if it has to be, then a more authoritarian and high-tech China or Singapore could probably better control COVID, ”said Koichi Nakano, politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The bureaucratic, technological, logistical and political contortions required to accomplish this unprecedented feat – a massively intricate, well-scrutinized spectacle at a time of global unrest, death and suffering – have already placed the country in an undesirable spotlight.
Most importantly, it exposed some embarrassing things: that much of Japan does not want the Games, that the country’s vaccine introduction was late and is only now expanding, and that many suspect that the Games are being forced upon the country because of the International The Olympic Committee needs billions in media revenue.
The concern here is not that the Tokyo organizers cannot reach the finish line without a major disaster. That seems possible and would allow the organizers to claim victory in some way.
The fear is that once the athletes and officials leave the city, the nation that has involuntarily sacrificed much for the cause of global sporting unity will be poorer for it, and not just because of the tens of billions of dollars it spent on the Games Has.
The Japanese public may see an already bad coronavirus situation getting worse; Olympics attendees here have already carried rapidly spreading variants of the virus to a nation that is only nearly 25% fully vaccinated.
The Tokyo Olympics are, in a sense, a way for visitors to test some of the common perceptions about Japan themselves that have contributed to this image of the country as the right place to host. The results at the start of these games are pretty mixed.
On the plus side, consider airport arrivals for the thousands of Olympians. They demonstrated Japan’s ability to take intensely organized workflow skills and use them for a specific task – in this case, protection from COVID-19, which could be brought in by a swarm of outsiders.
From the moment visitors stepped off their plane at Narita International Airport, they were – gently, cheerfully, but no doubt firm – cooped into queues and then led across the deserted airport like second graders on their way to break. Barriers, some with friendly signs, ensured that documents were checked, forehead temperature was measured, hands were disinfected and saliva was sucked out.
Symmetrical arrangements of chairs, all carefully numbered, greeted travelers waiting for their COVID-19 test results, and Olympic credentials were validated while waiting. The next steps – immigration, customs – were just as efficient, managing to be both crisp and restrictive, but also utterly amiable. You came out of the airport a little dizzy from all the guidance and hustle and bustle, but with largely undamaged ego.
But there were also noticeable failures.
After the opening ceremony ended, for example, hundreds of people in the stadium were crammed into a pen-like corral and forced to wait for hours on a flimsy barricade that separated them from curious Japanese onlookers, while dozens of empty buses idled in a line stretching each other extends into blocks and barely moves.
Japan has some obvious advantages over other democracies when it comes to hosting these games, such as its economic power. As the third largest economy in the world after the United States and China, it was able to spend the billions it took to orchestrate these Protean Games with their rising costs and changing requirements.
Another perk could be Japan’s well-deserved reputation for impeccable customer service. Few places in the world pride themselves on attending to visitor needs. However, it remains to be seen whether this real tendency towards hospitality will be put to the test by the extreme pressure.
A geopolitical imperative can be another important motivator. Japan’s arch-rival China is hosting next year’s Winter Games, and many nationalists here claim that an Olympic failure in Beijing’s battle for influence in Asia is not an option. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga may also be hoping that face-saving games, which he can then declare successful, will help him stay in power in the autumn elections.
And the potential loopholes in the reasoning that Japan is the perfect host country for pandemic games?
Maybe start with leadership. It was never clear who was in charge. Is it the city of Tokyo? The national government? The IOC? The Japanese Olympic Committee?
“These Olympics were an all-Japan national project, but as is often emphasized, no one has a clear idea of who the main organizer is,” said Akio Yamaguchi, crisis communications advisor at AccessEast in Tokyo. “Uncertainty is the greatest risk”
Japan also has a particular problem for democracies: a heated, sometimes chaotic public debate over whether it was a good idea to hold the Games.
“After the postponement, we never had a clear answer on the direction of the Olympic Games. The focus was on whether or not we can do it, rather than discussing why and how to do it, ”said Yuji Ishizaka, sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University.
“Japan is extremely bad at developing a ‘Plan B’. Japanese organizations are barely able to create scenarios in which something unexpected happens, ”said Ishizaka. “There was very little planning to simulate the circumstances in 2021.”
Another potentially shaky foundation of outside trust in Japan is its reputation as a tech-savvy miracle of efficiency.
Incoming athletes and reporters “are likely to find that Japan is not as high-tech and efficient as was often thought,” said Nakano. “Many will then realize that it is the total lack of accountability of the agreed political, business and media elites that has enabled Japan to hold the Olympics despite very negative public opinion – and possibly with significant human sacrifice.”
The Tokyo Games are a kind of Rorschach test in which the many different ideas about Japan as an Olympic host are put to the test. Right now they raise more questions than they answer.
Will virus cases and deaths rise? Will political fate be reversed? Is an international reputation for high-tech efficiency being debunked as not quite right?
Japan took a huge risk and bet they could pull off these unprecedented games. Whatever politicians and nationalists say about their success in the coming days, a real answer to whether Japan really was the right host has to wait for the Olympic flames to go out and the visitors to leave. Only then, with some distance, will clarity come.
AP authors Kantaro Komiya and Ted Anthony contributed to this report. Foster Klug, news director for Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific at The Associated Press, has been reporting on Asia since 2005 and is based in Tokyo.
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