Olympic-sized Challenge Ahead for Tokyo

Partner Contribution - ReloJapan

While there has been a lot of negative buzz surrounding the Tokyo Olympics due to the recent scandal involving sexist comments made by Yoshiro Mori, the disgraced former TOCOG (Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) president, his resignation has yielded an unexpectedly positive outcome in the appointment of Seiko Hashimoto as the new committee chief. Not only is Hashimoto the first female to hold the post of president, but the seven-time Olympian is also already injecting new life into the preparation for the games, which since their postponement have been plagued by various logistical complications and an overall lack of a clear strategy.

One thing that Hashimoto has made abundantly clear is that there is no plan to hold the games without spectators, although whether visitors from abroad will be permitted to enter Japan is still to be decided. One would imagine that some form of new “spectator” visa would need to be created for those individuals who have been vaccinated, tested, and cleared other requirements prior to entry. And as the mandatory post-arrival quarantine period of 14 days is unlikely to be a practical option for visitors eager to head right to the venues, “travel lanes” within Tokyo would need to be created to ensure that those with quarantine requirements waived do not interact with the general public. Measures could include offering designated accommodations for visitors, limiting the use of public transport, installing tracking apps, and requiring the submission of a full travel itinerary in advance of visa issuance. A similar system already exists in the Business Track (BT) privilege that has been granted to those travelling from Singapore and the Republic of Korea, although BT is currently suspended due to the State of Emergency declaration in Tokyo.

Maintaining adequate social distancing at Olympic venues is also sure to be a hotly debated topic, and if the Superbowl of American football and other recent events such as the Australian Open tennis tournament are any indication, a maximum of 50% of venue capacity is likely to be enforced. In addition to driving up ticket prices both at home and abroad, this will present a unique challenge to organizers hoping to showcase the games as being accessible to all in the community. It remains to be seen what types of creative solutions to half-empty stadiums can be found, although these may include using digital effects and providing “virtual spectator” experiences. But the Australians proved that a large-scale international sporting event can indeed be held safely and successfully, even if their solution involved confining athletes and essential coaching staff to a bubble and employing an aggressive testing strategy under which some individuals were tested for Covid more than 15 times over the course of the event. Far from vacation for anyone involved, athletes and fans were restricted to their hotel rooms outside of the event, despite a very minimal level of community spread of the virus in Melbourne.

Something that all involved can agree on is that the fan experience at this Olympics is going to be markedly different from past games. The organizers have released a playbook that includes prohibitions on applauding, high fiving, flag-waving, trumpet playing, or any of the general boisterousness that is part and parcel of the Japanese art of organized cheering. Temperature checks will be routinely conducted at all venues and mask-wearing compulsory and absolute (no Melbourne-style removing of masks once seated) for all spectators. Organizers are just hoping that these and soon-to-be-introduced stricter guidelines do not discourage too many domestic fans from venturing out from behind the comfort of their 4K flatscreens and the safety of their living rooms.

Unfortunately, public support for the Tokyo Olympics still remains low, with many polls showing that a majority of Japanese do not support going forward with the games at all this summer. A survey by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK found that only 27% of those polled agree with holding the Olympics during a pandemic, and 32% prefer that the games be cancelled entirely. There is also growing opposition to the Olympic torch relay, with Governor Tatsuya Maruyama of Japan’s Shimane Prefecture threatening to cancel participation in the relay unless infection rates in Tokyo subside. This may be just a publicity stunt to put additional pressure on central government organizers, however, it could also serve as a catalyst for more pronounced criticism of how the lead up to the games is being handled.

But perhaps the biggest concern surrounds the safety of the thousands of athletes themselves, who would need to be housed communally and transported to the various venues with minimal interaction with the outside world. This is assuming that a significant number of the 10,000 athletes slated to arrive in Tokyo in July are actually willing and able to make the trip. And then there is the question of what athletes will be able to accomplish after arrival. For example, Hashimoto predicts that only one-third of the participating athletes will be able to march in the opening ceremony, with many likely to be stuck in the processing backlog until the start of their respective events.

One thing is certain, however. Japan will find a way to make the Olympics work in some capacity, regardless of how many people attend and how many sacrifices must be made by all those involved. Despite public sentiment to the contrary, corporate Japan is fully behind the games, with big-name companies like Toyota showing unwavering support and all 67 of the other corporate sponsors still on board. The Tokyo government is looking to use the games to catapult the metropolis back into a top position amongst innovative global cities, vying to run the first games that are virtually carbon neutral. Tokyo organizers will ferry around both athletes and spectators on fuel cell buses and plan to award medals made entirely from recycled mobile phone parts. If nothing else, the Tokyo games represent a chance for Japan to use the Olympic stage to highlight a turning point for the country, be it Seiko Hashimoto’s ambitious goal of achieving 40% female representation on organizing committees, or Japan’s mission to reinvent itself as a model for sustainable post-industrial societies.

Let the games (hopefully) begin.

Dates Mar 02, 2021

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