Not since the 2004 Olympic Summer Games were in Athens, Greece — with preparations still happening seemingly until the start of the Opening Ceremony — has the International Olympic Committee endured as rough a run-up to their event as for the upcoming Games in Tokyo.
Japan is facing a surge in COVID-19 infections and a state of emergency still exists in the country. Japan on Friday expanded the state of emergency from six areas, including Tokyo, to nine, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga repeated his determination to hold the Games after it was postponed last year.
Organizers and the IOC insist the Games will be held safely, isolating 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes in a “bubble” and testing them daily. But criticism has also been targeted at athletes on social media, trying to get them to withdraw from the event.
“I personally can’t stand that the criticism and calls to cancel or boycott the Olympics are being aimed at the athletes themselves,” said Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto last week. “It strengthens my resolve to ensure we have the proper measures in place to make the Olympics safe for athletes.”
Polling in Japan also shows a wide majority of people want the Games to be called off. Most of the opposition seems to stem from the spiraling costs — at least $15 billion of mostly taxpayer money, although some estimates suggest it could be higher.
For its part, the International Olympic Committee has downplayed the public opinion polls, with IOC Spokesperson Mark Adams insisting last week “we listen but won’t be guided by public opinion. Everything is telling us that the Games can go ahead and will go ahead,” adding that the IOC and Games organizers have private polling numbers that show there is not the degree of negativity toward the event.
But in a show of the state of things in Tokyo, Adams was talking at the press conference last week because IOC President Thomas Bach was not able to enter the country because of the state of emergency.
Countries that will be sending athletes to Tokyo are already adjusting. USA Weightlifting is having its pre-Olympic camp in Hawaii and the U.S. track and field team has cancelled its training camp in Chiba, the prefecture next to Tokyo, “out of concerns for their athletes’ safety,” reported Reuters.
“With the uncertainty surrounding competitions in 2020 and 2021, USATF provided domestic competitive opportunities … and encouraged Team USATF athletes to stay in the U.S. and train,” USA Track & Field confirmed in a statement to Agence France-Presse.
The insistence on holding the Games has started to run into resistance in parts of Japan. The governor of Chiba Prefecture said Thursday he has no plan to allocate hospital beds for Olympic athletes who become COVID-positive, joining the governor of Ibaraki Prefecture in rejecting requests from the Tokyo Olympic organizers.
A lot of the opposition to the Games also seems to come from Japan’s slow pace of vaccination. Suga has pledged to have all eligible people vaccinated by the end of September, making “herd immunity” impossible before the Games. The slow start was because Japan requested domestic clinical trials in addition to Pfizer Inc.’s testing in other countries since people in Japan are often skeptical about foreign-made drugs, especially vaccines, and officials say they needed to thoroughly address safety concerns.