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EDITORIAL | Let the Athletes Speak on Pushing Through with the Tokyo Olympics

These men and women continue to train despite their anxieties, thinking of the legacy they will leave for Japanese society. If they leave it to others to decide whether or not the Olympics should go ahead, a grand opportunity will be lost.

Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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Tokyo Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto

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As we near the scheduled opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in July, it is even more important for the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the Tokyo Organizing Committee to redouble their efforts to make the Games a success this summer. That would be a major step forward in controlling the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and achieving progress for society and the economy.

Unfortunately, at present the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of abating, and the state of emergency has been extended until well into June for Tokyo and other prefectures around the country. Now there are growing calls for the Olympics to be canceled or postponed once again. 

However, we should first ask whether the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the Olympic Organizing Committee have seriously addressed the basic question of “Why are the Olympics being held in Tokyo?”

What Message are We Sending to the Athletes?

The refrain of being committed to holding a “safe and secure Olympics,” repeated by the government and the organizing committee, is a premise to holding the games, not an answer to the sense of unease. Repeating this phrase while the public’s understanding of the significance of holding the games remains nebulous won’t lead to greater understanding.

We would like to see Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga explain the significance of the Games clearly to the Japanese people.

And we would like to see the athletes do the same. Let us hear them tell us in their own words their true feelings, including their individual hopes and concerns. The anxieties these men and women are enduring as they continue to train, even though the future remains unclear, mirror those in the hearts of every Japanese. 

That is why these athletes, who will compete under the Japanese Hinomaru flag, have a responsibility to talk about the legacy they can leave for Japanese society. 

They may think it best to keep quiet, terrified that they may become the targets of unreasonable criticism at times. Despite that, it is important for them to continue to reach out to society at large. If fears of a public opinion backlash cause athletes to stay silent, and they leave it to others to decide whether or not the Olympics will go ahead, their lives as athletes will be over. 

In a column he contributed to The Sankei Shimbun, track star Shingo Suetsugu, who won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is still competing, wrote, “I pray that the thoughts in the hearts of these athletes will connect with society and fully convey their true thinking to society.”

In the article Suetsugu added, “If that happens, then surely Japanese sports will not perish.” 

It is also a warning that, if that does not happen, Japanese sports may indeed die. It also means we need to understand just how much preparation has gone into these games to fully comprehend the risk. 

We, the spectators who support these athletes too, need once again to give thought to the value of sports.

Even now we can recall the deep emotion and heady excitement of the drama of elite athletes competing on the world stage in premier events like the 2002 soccer World Cup staged jointly in Japan and South Korea, and the 2019 Rugby World Cup held at various locations in Japan. The same was true during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Without a doubt, sports have the power to teach us the joy that comes from working tirelessly to achieve a goal. 

Currently the athletes are becoming targets for criticism along with the Olympics themselves and not given credit for their hard work and contributions. That is a shameful, disgraceful way for a host nation for the Olympics to act.

It is understandable that the Japanese public should be concerned about the spread of COVID-19 when many athletes and other individuals connected to the Olympics are due to gather in Tokyo for the Games. Naturally, the Japanese government and the organizing committee should work to alleviate such anxiety.

Pooling Available Knowledge

The message should emphasize that efforts such as preventing the spread of COVID-19 are moving in the same direction as efforts for the advancement of Japanese society overall.  

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other parties involved in the Olympics have the duty to undertake stringent infection prevention measures for Japanese and foreign athletes, and others connected with the Games. It is also expected that more than 80% of the competitors, who will be housed together in the Olympic Village, will already have been vaccinated. 

The U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. has promised to provide enough vaccines to inoculate 20,000 participants, apart from what Japan is providing. Tamayo Marukawa, minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, has indicated the government is considering giving inoculation priority to some of the volunteers who will have many opportunities for contact with athletes and other visitors from abroad, as well as judges and interpreters.

Such a response is clearly far too relaxed. With the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine having been approved, Japan has now secured a pipeline of vaccine supplies adequate to vaccinate its entire population. We should not be talking about just 20,000 people, but rather vaccinating all of the 80,000 volunteers who are scheduled to have a role in the Games. 

Even if a sharp increase of infections should force future cancellation of the Olympics, this effort will not have been in vain. The important thing is to get as many people as possible vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Since 2020 the prevailing consensus in domestic and international sports circles is that it would be possible to hold a large-scale sporting event with spectators in attendance. And to date we have not seen COVID-19 spread through these events. With everything possible being done to reduce the risk of infections at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the Games should be able to take place as scheduled.

According to the Tokyo Organizing Committee, the number of foreign visitors connected to the Olympics who will come to Japan has decreased from the initial estimate of 180,000 to around 78,000. In order to ensure safety at the Games, that number might be pared down even further. Attention should be given to this goal up to the last minute.

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(Read The Sankei Shimbun editorial in Japanese at this link.)  

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun