Updated: July 11, 2021 8:38:41 am
The opening ceremony of the pandemic-hit Tokyo Olympics is just 12 days away. But instead of the celebratory fervour that normally grips a host city, there seems to be a sense of dread among the locals that they are all aboard a runaway train.
Japan’s sprawling capital is witnessing another surge in Covid-19 cases, a state of emergency has been imposed in Tokyo, spectators have been banned from the stadiums, and Shigeru Omi, the Japanese government’s top coronavirus advisor, has said it is “abnormal” to conduct the Olympics during a pandemic.
“Everyone I talk to seems to feel a sense of helplessness, resignation or outrage about these very unpopular Games,” author and journalist Timothy Hornyak told The Sunday Express from Tokyo. “I don’t know a single person who is excited about the Olympics.”
When it was earlier announced that up to 10,000 fans — or 50% the capacity, whichever was less — would be allowed to watch the Games events, there was optimism that some kind of an atmosphere would be created after months of negative build-up.
Those hopes ended on Thursday after the organisers, spooked by the rising number of infections and concerns sparked by the Delta variant, were forced into a U-turn and barred spectators. “Share that excitement with families at home,” Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said, as per Reuters.
The decision has left the competitors disappointed. “I understand the concern but it’s a pity. This was a great opportunity to advertise our sport to many people who wouldn’t have seen it before,” Siegfried Aikman, the coach of Japan’s men’s hockey team, told The Sunday Express, adding, “People are watching Sumo wrestling, there are other events happening with spectators.”
Incidentally, just around the time when the decision to ban spectators from the Olympics was being announced, around 10,000 fans were watching a local baseball game at the Tokyo Dome, an indoor arena. The games later this week, too, are likely to have fans. But the Olympics, which have been put under a magnifying glass, won’t have any.
“It is a political decision,” says Aikman, who led Japan to the Asian Games gold medal in 2018. “The political pressure was high, people wanted to return to normal lives and with the Games coming, they opened up too early (during the last state of emergency) which led to a spike and now they had to take this step. It’s also because the elections are due.”
Aikman also points out that Japan’s definition of ‘state of emergency’ is different from other countries. “People are still going to work, trains are crowded, shops and markets are open, restaurants are full,” he says. “The only thing is restaurants can’t serve alcohol and have to shut by 8 pm.”
The general elections are likely to be held soon after the Olympics and Paralympics get over, and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has staked a lot of his political capital on the successful conduct of the Games in the middle of a pandemic.
Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) incidentally failed to secure a majority in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections on July 4. In an editorial, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, The Asahi Shimbun — also an official partner of the Olympics — noted, “The election outcome should be viewed as a harsh voter verdict on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s leadership in tackling such key policy challenges as the new coronavirus pandemic and the Tokyo Olympics.”
The Financial Times has called the reasons as also geopolitical, with Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics in early 2022. “A triumphant Games in China, held just eight months after an ignominious Japanese failure, is a prospect few LDP politicians want to contemplate,” it said recently.
Whatever the motive, the Japanese government and organisers find themselves at odds with the public. Hornyak, who has been based in Japan for 15 years, says the handling of the situation has left a lot to be desired. “Frustration among the public and Japanese businesses is mounting along with government dithering, new coronavirus cases, Japan’s fourth state of emergency and the fifth wave of infections,” he says.
The concerns stem from fears that the tens of thousands of foreigners who will enter Tokyo will spark another wave of the virus. Athletes from Lithuania, Israel and Serbia have tested positive after landing in Japan, adding to the anxiety.
The situation is so dynamic that Aikman and his team are prepared for further curtailed movement in case of an outbreak. As per the current rules, athletes are allowed to travel only between the Games village and their venue. “But who knows, we might be told to just be in our rooms except for playing matches,” he says.
While there is a sense of resignation in Aikman’s voice, the hockey coach also believes the locals are enthusiastic about watching the Japanese athletes play and the mood will improve once the Games get underway.
“This is the situation and everybody has to live with it,” Aikman says. “What makes sportspersons great is that first they deal with the disappointment, then they adapt to the situation, whatever it may be, and finally, they try to succeed despite the circumstances. That’s what we will do in two weeks.”
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