With many countries worldwide lifting lockdowns and relaxing quarantine measures, Japan vigorously prepares to hold the upcoming Summer Olympics in the games’ host city of Tokyo. The long-awaited event was already postponed in the past year due to the devastating COVID-19 outbreak. As there are only less than two months left for the Games, questions remain about whether to hold or cancel the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the outbreak, Japan was one of the major East Asian countries that successfully combated newly emerged SARS-Cov-2 infections by adopting and implementing highly effective pandemic measures. Still, in terms of vaccination roll-out, the government has been facing mounting criticism for the slow vaccination drive compared to other large countries, primarily the United States and China. Indeed, Japan launched a nationwide immunization campaign early this year; however, according to official data, only less than 3% of the population has been fully inoculated so far, making it one of the least vaccinated nations among developed economies.

Despite overseas fans and tourists being completely banned from attending the event, according to the latest estimates, thousands of delegates with over 15,000 athletes from around 200 countries are expected to participate in these Olympics, which could easily spread variant strains among the population.

In fact, Japan has already faced three waves of COVID-19, resulting in over 13,200 deaths; at the present moment, the central government is struggling to contain a fourth deadly wave, as the number of people testing positive has steadily risen since mid-April. With new cases on the rise, restrictions are subsequently being tightened, and a state of emergency in major cities and prefectures has been extended for another month. In addition, the government set a goal of administering both jabs of the vaccine to older people by the end of July.

Despite the authorities’ attempts to ensure a safe and secure Games, the overall domestic reaction has been sharply negative, as recent opinion polls and surveys show that a majority of Japanese people are against the Tokyo Olympics. Given the level of concern over COVID-19 infections, the medical experts agree that it would be the rational decision to temporarily suspend the Olympics before it is too late. In this context, the Japan Medical Association insists that the central government has to urge the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to postpone or cancel the Games, as public health experts believe such mass gatherings could lead to an increase in cases. Accordingly, in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, the more contagious variants might spread catastrophically in major cities across the country.

Even though rumors of a suspension persist, top-level signaling makes it seem unlikely that the government intends to call off the Games. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been able to effectively resist public opposition and pressure so far, as he already stated his strong determination to proceed with the Tokyo Olympic and the Paralympic Games this summer during an in-person meeting with the US President Biden at the White House in April. In return, Joe Biden demonstrated his full support for Japan’s efforts to hold the Games.

The first time Japan hosted the Olympics was in Tokyo in 1964. The Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics marked a major milestone that propelled Japan onto the global stage as a major global power. Back then, staging the Olympic Games was seen as a chance to demonstrate a country’s prominence at both the international and domestic levels. Undoubtedly, the Olympics carries immense symbolic value; the cancellation or postponement of the event could even tarnish the national image and the international prestige of Japan, as there have only been three Olympics that were abandoned since its inception. This is why the government and organizers are pouring huge efforts into successfully staging the Games in Tokyo this summer.

Besides the symbolic significance of the Games, the Olympics principally presents an opportunity to stimulate socio-economic development by bringing some economic benefits to the host country, as well as projecting a positive international image to the rest of the world. At the same time, holding such a massive international sporting event requires a huge amount of investment in a broad range of fields, from constructing sport-relating facilities to enhancing security (spending on security issues have escalated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks). In this regard, in preparation for the Games, the Japanese government has already poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects.

When Japan won the bid for the 2020 Olympics in 2013, the total cost for the event was estimated at nearly $7.4 billion. According to the latest government figures, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are expected to cost around $26 billion, well in excess of the original estimate, and enough to make it the third most expensive Olympics behind only the Games of Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic ($50 billion) and Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic ($42 billion). Nevertheless, Japan has consistently overrun budgets in the hope of getting a return on its investment, but there is still no guarantee that the Games will take place at all.

Furthermore, an unprecedented year-long delay has increased operational costs by another $2.8 billion ($900 million of which is for expenses related to COVID-19 prevention measures, such as testing, hygiene kits, and vaccines). Newly constructed and upgraded giant stadiums, sports halls, and residential buildings within the Athletes Village have been left empty and unused for an entire year. Despite implementing drastic measures, many additional events that would have brought in revenue have already been canceled due to the rising risk of infection.

From an economic point of view, hosting the Games does not necessarily convey a significant impact on the host country’s economy; the impact is short-term, lasting only the duration of the event. Moreover, as a part of Japan’s pandemic containment strategies, the country continues to dissuade foreign visitors, resulting in massive job and revenue losses for the tourism industry, which was one of the most dynamic and essential parts of the Japanese economy before the outbreak.

The global COVID-19 outbreak has presented enormous health risks and financial challenges for every state on the planet. As Japan is currently grappling with a fourth wave of infections, it needs to minimize negative socio-economic impacts and maintain the most extensive health care operation in Olympic history. Unfortunately, under the long shadow of COVID-19, the successful execution of such a large and high-profile megaevent will be no easy feat.


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