Rising infections, increasing deaths, new variants and more lockdowns have put a question mark next to sporting events.
The organising committee of the postponed 2020 Olympic Games has ruled out holding the event this year without spectators despite mounting health fears amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A decision to postpone the 2020 Games was taken in March last year but the Japanese government, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have all publicly said the event will go ahead this year.
Japan has reported more than 384,000 cases of the coronavirus, including more than 5,500 deaths. A state of emergency in Tokyo and three other provinces were declared this month for the second time after a shocking rise in cases in December last year.
The organising committee told Al Jazeera in a statement that “we are not willing to see the Games without spectators”.
“Tokyo 2020 is making efforts to accommodate spectators as much as possible, while implementing thorough measures to prevent infection … the upper limit on the number of spectators will be in line with the limits in force in Japan at the time,” it said in the statement.
On Friday, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga promised to deliver “hope and courage” to the world by hosting the Olympic Games despite fears that the event – scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8, 2021 – may be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Suga said Japan was “determined to deliver hope and courage to the world” by ensuring the Games are held.
On Wednesday, IOC President Thomas Bach told a news conference the organisation’s “task is to prepare Olympic Games, not cancel them” after he was pressed on a report the government will cancel the event.
“Our task is also to make Olympic dreams of athletes come true,” Bach said. “We are working day and night to organise a safe Games and won’t add fuel to all these kinds of speculations.”
The IOC told Al Jazeera in a statement that in addition to the government, the “Organising Committee and the Japanese Olympic Committee are all fully behind the Games”.
“In conversations with all 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) last week, they expressed confidence, enthusiasm and hope for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 this summer,” the statement added.
While the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee did not answer Al Jazeera’s question on whether a safe Olympics can be held, it “hoped that daily life can return to normal as soon as possible”.
Tokyo Olympic Games, I cross the fingers for you🤞❤️ pic.twitter.com/9neW7kSIQU
— Daniele Callegari (@callega3) January 29, 2021
Earlier this month, a report quoting an unnamed government official said it was “too difficult” to hold the event given the rising cases and new coronavirus strains across the world.
“Nobody can predict the health situation in 206 NOCs and this, naturally and unfortunately, leads to speculations which are hurting the athletes in their preparations to overcome the challenges they face,” added IOC’s Bach.
Additionally, there have been warning calls by health experts on what holding the Olympic Games – with or without spectators – during the pandemic could mean for Japan and the world.
Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, said “it is not possible to accept [foreigners]” considering the current state of the pandemic.
Haruo Ozaki, chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, said the Olympic Games should go ahead but without fans altogether.
“I believe we should abandon the idea of holding the event and inviting people from around the world to Tokyo,” Ozaki was quoted as saying by The Asahi Shimbun.
“When we think about the athletes, the Games should be held. The basic objective of the Olympic Games is to have athletes gather in one place for competition. If that’s considered the objective, discussions should begin about holding the Games without spectators.
“If the central government really wants to hold the Olympics, it should present a specific road map that sets out goals for how much new cases need to be decreased and by when.”
Lack of public support
A survey carried out by Kyodo News earlier this month revealed that approximately 80 percent of people in Japan want the Games to be cancelled or rescheduled.
“In the poll, 35.3 percent called for the cancellation, while 44.8 percent said the Games should be postponed again,” Kyodo News said.
Japan aims to start its general vaccination campaign in May, just two months before the rescheduled Games are about to start. The mood on Tokyo’s street, therefore, remains pessimistic.
“It’s a no to the Olympics,” a 30-year-old Tokyo resident Ayako Seto told Al Jazeera.
“I learnt from the news that the vaccine will not be ready for everyone before the end of this year. I also heard taking a vaccine is not obligatory for the athletes. I don’t think the pandemic will end before this summer and the Olympics will not be the ‘victory against coronavirus’ as PM Suga said.”
However, Koichi Kobayashi, 66, said: “The Olympics should take place.”
“The Games are not just for a medal but it has more meaning of participation,” Kobayashi told Al Jazeera. “The athletes have prepared for the Olympics. It should go ahead but without spectators.”
Economy to take a hit
A report in the Japan Times said holding the Games without spectators would cost Japan 2.4 trillion yen ($22.9bn).
“Holding the Tokyo Games behind closed doors would cause a loss of 381.3 billion yen ($3.64bn) in spending related directly to the games, or 90 percent of the original projection for the events,” the report said, quoting estimates by Katsuhiro Miyamoto, an honorary professor at Kansai University.
“Stimulus effects on household consumption expenditures will halve to 280.8 billion yen ($2.7bn) and corporate marketing activities will be dampened. Economic gains from promotional sporting and cultural events after the games will also be reduced by half to 851.4 billion yen ($8.1bn).”
‘No plan B’: IOC chief says Tokyo Olympics will go ahead https://t.co/gwcxE5enuK
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) January 22, 2021
On Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported Japan’s Olympic sponsors were scaling back advertising campaigns and delaying marketing events related to the 2020 Olympics.
Canon’s chief financial officer, Toshizo Tanaka, was quoted as saying the company was working under the assumption that the event would go ahead as planned.
“But we are considering internally how to respond just in case it can’t be held,” he said.
Yasuhide Yajima, chief economist at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo, said the Japanese government would have to pay compensation if it cancels the Games.
“That will be the biggest cost for the government [if it’s cancelled],” Yajima told Al Jazeera.
“If the coronavirus is under control by then, Japan can have the ‘first victory’. It can also show the world how to control coronavirus. It will also have huge economic benefits.”
But for 27-year-old Taisuke Iwasaki, holding the Games will add to the woes of the Japanese people and solving domestic issues should be the government’s priority.
“Looking at the health and medical care situation here, it is difficult to have the Olympics,” Iwasaki told Al Jazeera.
“Even if we ride in an ambulance, hospitals don’t have space. It is a situation where we have to reduce the number of people on the streets, not invite more from abroad. Once clusters happen, we cannot send foreigners back right away or let them stay at a hospital that has no space for anyone.
“It can be chaos.”