Japan is currently shrouded by a heavy air of resignation. After months of vehement protests, the Japanese are slowly coming to terms with the fact that the 32nd edition of the Olympic Games, already postponed by a year, will finally begin in their capital city Tokyo on July 23.
According a survey on Monday by the Yomhuri daily newspaper, 50 per cent of the respondents said the Games would happen this summer, even though other recent surveys have indicated that more than 80 per cent of the Japanese populace is opposed to the conduct of the Games at a time when the country is still struggling with the deleterious impact of the coronavirus.
Japanese concerns aren’t difficult to understand. The healthcare system is fragile and stretched to the thin, the vaccination drive has been slow and tedious, and there is a genuine fear that the vast number of athletes and officials from across the globe could possibly bring with them other variant strains of the virus that could push the country further to the brink. While there has been a steady decline in caseloads over the last fortnight, Japan is still reporting new cases in the low thousands on a daily basis, leading to leading voices from the medical community calling for the immediate scrapping of the quadrennial extravaganza.
The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most respected newspapers and a significant partner of the Olympic Games, called for the immediate cancellation in a scathing editorial last month. To compound the organisers’ woes, an estimated 10,000 volunteers – an eighth of the total volunteer workforce – have resigned since February, throwing plans out of kilter. Since the Sydney Games in 2000, volunteers have been the bedrock of the Olympic Games. Japan can still make do with the pruned numbers as things stand now because they will have substantially fewer audiences to cater to, but with further mass resignations hardly unlikely, things could reach a tipping point.
But the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee are both adamant that the rescheduled Games will proceed as per plan, even if it means there will be no spectators at the various venues that will stage different disciplines. Already, Japan has banned the entry of fans from overseas, and will decide over the next fortnight whether to allow locals entry at half-capacity, or follow the global lead and, for the first time, conduct the Games behind closed doors.
There are financial implications galore if the Games were to be cancelled altogether, needless to say, a significant consideration for both the host government and the IOC. It is being estimated that Japan will lose up to $800 million following the decision to keep out spectators from abroad. Truth to tell, that is but a drop in the ocean. A huge chunk of the re-evaluated Games budget of $15.4 billion has already been spent. Should the Games be scrapped in their entirety, organisers will have to reimburse local sponsors to the tune of $3.3 billion, apart from returning the IOC’s contribution of $1.3 billion.
As grave as these issues might seem, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Athletes around the world are gripped in the throes of uncertainty, their preparations tinged with anxiety. As it is, with competitions in several disciplines perforce having to be put in cold storage for almost the whole of last year, most of their have had less than ideal build-ups to the most important event of their lives.
Generally, athletes chalk out a four-year schedule designed in such a way that they are at peak fitness and performance-levels by the time the Games come around. By that estimation, the optimal performance phase has long passed. As if that weren’t bad enough, a majority have had to make do with the odd scrap of action here and there, with several lead-up and qualification competitions around the world obvious casualties given that the second, and in some places third, wave of the virus is wreaking havoc.
As things stand now, more than a quarter of the estimated 11,000 athletes have yet to meet the qualification criteria, though a clearer picture is certain to emerge over the next three weeks, with the IOC setting a June 29 deadline for securing a slot at the Games. Many disciplines, including badminton, have had to call off numerous tournaments in Asia and Europe, and the World Badminton Federation has made it clear that it has no intention whatsoever of quickly putting together a meet to serve as a qualifying event. For sportspersons who live and die by the Olympics, it must be a bitter pill to swallow to be denied the opportunity to showcase their wares due to reasons beyond their control, but that’s the new world order and there really is nothing anyone can do about it.
There is pressure within Japan on their champions to pull out of the Games, a call that has put the athletes in a spot. Rikako Ikee, the 20-year-old swimmer, successfully battled second-stage leukemia to seal her berth in the national team. Unsurprisingly, the organisers are portraying her as the heroic symbol of the Games as they promise a ’safe Olympics’. As for Ikee herself, she is torn between the successful culmination of her fight against cancer, and the anguish and pain of a proud nation that is practically at the end of its tether.
Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis legend who created ripples by pulling out of the French Open to preserve himself for a challenge on his more preferred surface – grass – at Wimbledon, has said if ’there was a lot of resistance to the Games, maybe it’s better not to go’. The Olympics are supposed to herald the coming together of the best global sporting talent, a smorgasbord of the elite and the indefatigable. That may not be the case this time around, but then again, nothing in the world has been normal for nearly 15 months, with the invisible enemy deciding to set stall and cause untold damage.