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[ODDS and EVENS] Olympians Caught in Rhetorical Crossfire Over Plans to Hold Tokyo Games

Stakeholders and opponents clash in a war of words over the decision to press ahead with this summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games.



Popular swimmer Rikako Ikee


Clashing ideologies are on full display as Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizers and other visible stakeholders, who insist that nothing will stop the Olympics from being held in the nation's capital and elsewhere in Japan, want their opinions to be heard ー and amplified via traditional media and social media. Opposing viewpoints are equally visible.

Which is hardly surprising. After all, holding the Tokyo Games during a global pandemic that has already killed nearly 3.3 million people worldwide (including more than 10,900 in Japan) is an issue that triggers debate, anxiety and fear. 

What's more, Japan has had less than 2% of its population fully vaccinated as of Monday, May 10, according to published reports. 

Is there really enough time and realistic logistical plans and manpower between now and the Opening Ceremony on July 23 to have the overwhelming majority of Japan's residents vaccinated? Are there important benchmarks that should be discussed first?

Athletes, many of whom are expected to compete in the upcoming Olympics or Paralympics, of course, have been put on the spot at various sporting venues and events in recent days and asked to express their views on the feasibility of holding the Tokyo Games.

Ikee Reacts to Social Media Requests

On the other hand, swimmer Rikako Ikee, a media darling and national hero who overcame a battle with leukemia to qualify for the Olympics in her hometown, joined the fiery debate after being reeled into the conversation.

How so? 

Several people contacted her on Twitter and asked her to not accept a spot on Japan's Olympic swim team and call for the Tokyo Games to be called off.

Ikee, who competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, has more than 658,000 Twitter followers, so her thoughtful reflections on the issue resonated with a lot of people and spread quickly on social media to all corners of the globe.


In other words, Ikee has been caught in the political crossfire.

Some people want to transform her into a powerful anti-Olympic symbol. But Ikee isn't interested in being a pawn in a political fight.

On May 7, Ikee tweeted the following:

“I think it is unavoidable and only to be expected that there are many people calling for a cancellation of the Olympics given the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Even if the Olympics are not held, I spend every day concerned about the risk of infection since I have a pre-existing medical condition.

“Even if people ask me to state my opposition, there is nothing I can do to change the situation.”

Ikee encouraged everyone to embrace positivity at a time of widespread uncertainty and extraordinary challenges.

“I strongly hold along with many others the feeling of wanting to change as quickly as possible the pessimistic mood in society," the 20-year-old swimmer wrote on Twitter. "But I find it very painful that individual athletes are being asked to do that.

“I hope that everyone will warmly look over not just myself but all athletes who are doing their best regardless of what the eventual situation turns out to be.”

Pushing for athletes to call for a cancellation or another postponement of the Tokyo Games is, in the words of one veteran journalist I conversed with this week, "a very nasty thing."


He described this behavior as "trying to manipulate people's positions" to serve their political goals.” He added that demands for Olympians to tell organizers and other leaders to stop the Games from being held "should be off limits."

These demands on athletes are, of course, reminiscent of cyber-bullying, an escalating problem in modern times.

The fact that Ikee was contacted in this manner in an attempt to recruit her to be a high-profile face of Olympic opposition isn’t surprising. 

The Olympics are a multibillion-dollar entity, and there will never be 100% support for the gigantic sports festival.

Naturally, the continuous barrage of comments from top International Olympic Committee officials (Thomas Bach, John Coates) and Japanese Olympic Committee, Tokyo 2020 (Seiko Hashimoto and others) and national and Tokyo Metropolitan Government leaders keeps the subject in the news 24/7.

Nishikori Says Olympic Bubble Could Be a Problem

While Ikee was responding to correspondence she received via Twitter, veteran pro tennis player Kei Nishikori weighed in on the subject in an interview with reporters at the Italian Open on Monday. Nishikori’s remarks should be prefaced with the following information: calls for a nationwide state of emergency in Japan increased at the same time. (The current state of emergency, including in Tokyo, involves six of the nation's 47 prefectures.)

"I don't know what they are thinking, and I don't know how much they are thinking about how they are going to make a bubble, because this is not 100 people like these tournaments,”Nishikori told reporters in Rome.

"It's 10,000 people in the [Olympic] village. So I don't think it's easy, especially what's happening right now in Japan. It's not doing good. Well, not even [just] Japan. You have to think all over the world right now."

Nishikori acknowledged that holding the Olympics could be a risky proposition.

"If you think only about athletes, I think you can do it," he said. "If you can make a good bubble, maybe you can do it, but there is some risk, too."

"[What happens] if there [are] 100 cases in the village ... [or] thousands?" Nishikori said. "You have to really discuss how you can play really safely."


Osaka Admits Mixed Feelings on Olympics

Like Nishikori, women's world No. 2 Naomi Osaka, who was named Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year last week, traveled to Rome for the Italian Open, one of the clay-court tuneup events for the upcoming French Open.

Osaka used her highly visible platform to share her conflicted thoughts on plans to press ahead and hold the Tokyo Games during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of course I would say I want the Olympics to happen, because I’m an athlete and that’s sort of what I’ve been waiting for my entire life,” Osaka was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

“But I think that there’s so much important stuff going on, and especially the past year,” Osaka added. “I think a lot of unexpected things have happened and if it’s putting people at risk, and if it’s making people very uncomfortable, then it definitely should be a discussion, which I think it is as of right now.”

Parting Thoughts

Writing for The Financial Times, columnist Leo Lewis outlined the contradictory forces at play in the run-up to the Olympics. (Headline: "Japan presses ahead with its great Olympics gamble." Secondary head: "The political determination to go on with the games is at odds with public enthusiasm.")

"Perhaps [the] most demoralizing problem with treating the Games as something necessary is that they become just that: a joyless chore rather than the soaring festival of achievement, ambition and togetherness the Olympics can be, at their best," Lewis opined in a column published on the newspaper's website on Sunday, May 9. 

"The language of the preparations ー with the solemn commitments to safety, the highly likelihood of no live spectators and onerous limitations on athletes visiting one of the world's most exciting cities ー feels redacted of any explanation of how all this is going to be enjoyable."

Former Chicago Tribune sports reporter Phil Hersh, who covered 19 Olympics, offered another bold opinion on May 10, the same day it was announced that Bach won’t be making a planned visit to Tokyo this month due to the extension of the state of emergency.

“Let’s see if I get this: @Tokyo2020 organizing committee president has discouraged IOC president Thomas Bach from visiting Japan this month, which means it isn’t advisable for a single person to come now during pandemic but it’s OK for 15,000-plus to come for [the Olympics] two months hence?" tweeted Hersh, who also wrote this thought-provoking column.

The debate marches on.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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