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EDITORIAL | Tokyo 2020 Olympics Without Fans? This Isn’t What Japan Promised

The world put faith in Japan’s COVID-19 countermeasures and its ability to prepare. To host an Olympics with no spectators is an embarrassing catastrophe for the host nation.



A time of national hope for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, now to be held without any spectators. Here, the Blue Impulse of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force reproduce the five Olympic Rings In the sky over JASDF Matsushima Air Base in preparation for their flyover as the Olympics open. (January 24, 2020 = in Higashimatsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture. Photographed by Kenji Suzuki)



The Japanese government decided on July 8 to place Tokyo under a state of emergency until August 22 — a period that goes past the duration of the 2020 Olympics.

The government also extended the state of emergency in Okinawa, and the quasi-state of emergency in Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, and Osaka until August 22.

At the same time, the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Tokyo Organizing Committee, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) have decided that Olympic events taking place in the greater Tokyo area will happen without spectators.

This means that events at most of the main Olympic venues will take place without the typical cheers and applause from the crowd.

Tantamount to ‘Breaking a Promise’

When the city of Tokyo was awarded the Olympics in 2013, it promised to make the tournament a success. When then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested to the IOC in March 2020 that Tokyo 2020 be postponed by one year (and not canceled), he promised to show we could win the battle against COVID-19. Along with that promise came the responsibility for a successful tournament.

The world put faith in Japan’s COVID-19 countermeasures and its ability to prepare, and agreed with the one-year delay.

The decision to host an Olympics with no spectators is tantamount to Japan abandoning its promise — and this is an embarrassing catastrophe for the host nation.

There are no excuses, especially when one looks at all the major sporting events taking place in the West with spectators present.

The difference between Japan and the West is the COVID-19 vaccination rate. Japan’s vaccination program has been much slower than that in many other countries. One major factor is the country’s slow pharmaceutical approval process.

Responsibility lies heavily with government ministries such as the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and the incompetent response of the National Diet in the face of this emergency.

As soon as the one-year delay was announced, the country should have worked out a timeline up until July 23, 2021, and sped up its vaccine approval and inoculation schedule.

The effort to host the Olympics is nothing short of a battle for control over COVID-19. If things had been different, and Japan not been so slow with its vaccine rollout, the country would probably not have let down the rest of the world.

The sense of loss over not being able to invite spectators to the world’s largest sporting event is huge.

And it is not just about the financial loss incurred from lack of ticket sales. It is about the extra boost that a crowd can provide in helping athletes reach their maximum potential. 

A good example of this special connection is the one between baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and the team’s supporters. The way in which the Angels fans cheer and applaud Ohtani as he stands to bat is the epitome of great sporting atmosphere.

This is all happening in a country that has a fast vaccine rollout and a high degree of freedom: Ohtani would not be marching on to greatness without the boost provided by the crowd of spectators.

Notably, Japan has hosted a large number of domestic sporting events with fans in the past year, including Nippon Professional Baseball games and J. League soccer matches, and there have been no major COVID-19 spikes. Indeed, if you were to put 10,000 spectators in the National Stadium and take necessary precautions, the risk of infection is virtually zero, according to recent analysis by the supercomputer Fugaku.

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It is therefore difficult to understand why only Tokyo 2020 will take place with no spectators. Having no supporters takes away the emotion and excitement of the Olympics.

Nevertheless, the value of a sporting extravaganza that attracts the finest athletes from all over the world cannot be denied.

There will be a need to consider how we can support the event, even if there are no spectators — for example, by sending messages of praise to the athletes and enjoying this sports spectacle by watching it at home on TV.

At the same time, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga needs to keep talking about the significance of holding the Olympics. As the leader of the host nation, that is the minimum courtesy.

Complete a Thorough Vaccination Program

The people of Japan are already fed up with the COVID-19 situation. How much longer can this cycle of imposing and lifting states of emergency and canceling events go on? This most recent state of emergency is the fourth. We want the government to ensure that there is not a fifth.

The only way to achieve this is to press on with the vaccination program. The state of emergency will control the flow of people, but it must come with the swift distribution of vaccinations for all of the population.

Although vaccinations have gotten underway in Japan, there have been issues such as workplace application withdrawals and a lack of vaccine supply to local governments. There have been problems such as poor coordination between the national and local governments, and mismatches between local governments. There is a need to reorganize the situation and establish a unified chain of command.

“The effect of the vaccines is clear,” acknowledged PM Suga. “And if there is an improvement in the situation such as the number of hospital beds in use, then the state of emergency could be lifted early.”

We want the state of emergency to be lifted as soon as possible, and for the Paralympic Games — which start on August 24 — to take place with spectators present.


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

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun