The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government plan to hold the Olympics in 2021 despite calls from athletes and activist organizations to cancel the Tokyo 2020 games over uncertainty about the coronavirus.
IOC president Thomas Bach and Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, agreed in late March to reschedule the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, aiming to hold it before summer 2021 amid the pandemic.
Postponement comes after being caught red-handed
In a phone interview, former Olympic soccer player and political scientist Jules Boykoff said the IOC should have announced the postponement earlier.
“It’s pretty hard to look at the evidence of what the International Olympic Committee has done around the coronavirus and around their decision to postpone and think that athletes are truly first,” said Boykoff, who is also an international expert in sports politics.
Boykoff’s column calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was published in The New York Times six days before the official announcement, and pointed out that the IOC allowed qualifying tournaments for Olympic boxing to happen despite warnings about the pandemic.
“[The Boxing Federations] proceeded even though they knew there was COVID. They kept going ahead with this qualifying event under the auspices of the IOC, and numerous people that were participating in that event got COVID-19,” said Boykoff.
Over a week after the qualification tournaments, the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee announced the postponement of the Olympics.
“We were addressing these situations and came to the conclusion that, in order to safeguard the health of the athletes and everybody involved in the Olympic games, we have to postpone the Olympic and Paralympic games of Tokyo 2020….,” said Bach in the official video.
Hosting the Olympics creates more cons than pros
Anti-Olympic activists and locals are concerned about the costs the host cities have to undertake, with many arguing that the postponement creates a financial burden on taxpayers in the host city and poses major safety and mental health risks to participating athletes.
The Japanese government audit report showed Japan has spent double the official $12.6 billion of the Olympics, and the postponing the games could add another $2.7 billion.
“I realized that there was actually a pattern there whereby the Olympics spent more money than it said it was going to on the cost of the games,” said Boykoff, who studied the history of the Olympics after retiring from professional soccer.
Hosting the Olympics also exacerbates the city’s social problems according to Jonny Coleman, one of the organizers of NOlympics LA, an organization opposing the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.
Coleman notes that as cities have to invest in accommodations and upgrades to host the Olympics, these efforts cause increased rent, evictions, and homelessness, all of which largely impact the poor and immigrant communities.
“Close to a million people in LA are homeless or very close to being homeless, so we’ve always thought it was absurd to have an event where you’re going to create even more homeless people and create a situation where you’re going to want to remove them because the media is coming to town,” said Coleman.
While LA’s homelessness crisis has worsened over the past decade, Japan has also struggled to curve its poverty rate, develop generous social welfare and provide support for homeless people, thus highlighting a problem that does not discriminate based on location.
In 2016, homeless people were evicted from a park near the New National Stadium in Tokyo, which was supposed to be main arena for the 2020 Olympics.
“Whether it’s Tokyo, whether it’s Rio, London or Beijing, the same thing happens again and again and again,” Coleman said.
Greenwashing glosses over the risks
The IOC and organizing committees use greenwashing strategies to promote the games, which often result in different outcomes as they initially promised, according to Boykoff.
“This is a really good example of greenwashing. One of the slogans of the Olympics is the ‘recovery games’,” he remarked.
Boykoff said that the torch relay to be held in the Fukushima prefecture threatens the safety of athletes, visitors, and local residents because damage still exists from the 2013 earthquake and tsunami that led to multiple nuclear meltdowns.
“When I traveled to Fukushima in July 2019, I saw with my own two eyes that the recovery is definitely not done there,” he said, adding the Olympics try to create a clean image of the city even though some parts of Fukushima still suffer from radioactive contamination.
“It’s not safe for everyone to return. It’s probably not safe to visit there or live there, but they were still going to have people,” said Coleman.
Some members of NOlympics LA even visited Fukushima and measured high radiation levels there.
“So, the pattern is the same here, to make sure the show happens because so much money is at stake. They spent tens of billions of dollars on this,” said Coleman. “And now it’s being postponed. It’s going to be more expensive which means the taxpayers are going to have to pay billions more dollars for this event.”
Olympic athletes bear the burden
Although the Olympic is a billion-dollar business, Olympic athletes, including some medalists, often struggle to make ends meet, said Boykoff.
For Japanese fencing Olympic medalist Ryo Miyake, working as an Uber Eats delivery worker while training for the Tokyo Games provides a necessary supplementary income.
“There are numerous Olympic athletes who have set up GoFundMe accounts to try to get their basic costs covered as they train for the games,” explained Boykoff, adding athletes are financially responsible for training, travel, and equipment without corporate sponsorships.
Moreover, Boykoff also added that the IOC should also create a mental health care fund for athletes dealing with uncertainty during postponement.
Although many countries have offered psychological support to help Olympic athletes deal with pressure and enhance their performance, neither the IOC nor the organizing committee created any specific mental health care plan following the postponement.
“In that particular moment, when you knew that there was going to be stress and strain on the athletes, it would have been the perfect time for the International Olympic Committee to step up and give money,” he said.
Despite this, in the video released by the IOC, Bach emphasized athletes must be prepared for the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
“The good news, particularly for the athletes, but also for the fans and everybody involved and everybody interested in the Olympic games, is there will be the Olympic games at Tokyo, so the athletes will have the chance and opportunity of their life to make their Olympic a dream coming true even in these uncertain times,” Bach said.