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It’s rare that an Olympic Games is not beset by some sort of controversy, and Tokyo 2020 (or Tokyo 2020NE as NBC attempted to rebrand it) is perhaps set to be the most contentious yet, at least within the host country.

A May 2021 poll found that some 83 per cent of the Japanese population don't want the games to go ahead, with that number likely to rise further as Tokyo enters its fourth Covid-19 state of emergency. As of 1 July, less than one in five Japanese citizens had received their first vaccination. And, while the ever-shifting Covid guidelines have clearly been difficult for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese government to navigate, the domineering role of the IOC over the past 18 months suggests there is a blame game to play.

As Covid spread across the globe in early 2020, a vacuum of information fuelled weeks of public speculation, as well as rumours of divided opinion in the Olympic camp on the games’ viability. As late as 3 March 2020, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams declared his organisation had decided not to postpone. Yet only three weeks later, the games were officially delayed, with no news conference to announce the decision.

In January 2021, with Covid on the rise again in major Japanese metropolitan areas, games organisers once again buried their head in the sand by publishing the Olympic Playbook, which permitted attendees to enter and move about Japan without mandatory quarantine or vaccine requirements. Spectators were only officially barred from the games in early July 2021, reducing them to a made-for-TV event.

With the IOC already generating 75 per cent of revenue from selling broadcasting rights, it’s surprising this decision was not made sooner, if only to quell the swelling tide of Japanese anger. In the context of the organisation’s seeming disregard of public opinion however this is less surprising.

Ironically, when Tokyo was chosen to host the games in 2013, the success of its bid came because the city was deemed a “safe pair of hands” amid economic crises and civil unrest in rival cities Madrid and Istanbul. There is little to suggest either city would have been better equipped to handle the crisis in 2020, but it is evident that effective risk and crisis management will take a more prominent role in future decisions about host cities.

Given the games’ turbulent history in times of global crisis, it’s disappointing officials haven’t learnt from the past, both distant and immediate. In 1904, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius meant the games were moved from Rome to London with only 10 months’ warning. More recently, early preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympics was almost derailed by the SARS scare. The Tokyo 2020 games is not even the first Japanese Olympics that have been cancelled or delayed – as the first non-Western city to win an Olympic bid, their 1940 games were cancelled due to the onset of WWII.

Shortcomings in preparation and mixed messaging are partially to blame for the failure to appropriately respond to the 2020 crisis. Calls from inside the Tokyo camp have laid that blame squarely on the IOC, with executive member of the Japanese Olympic Committee Kaori Yamaguchi stating that Tokyo had been “cornered” into going ahead with the games. IOC president Thomas Bach, meanwhile, continues to deny any concerns that the games could become a super spreader event, this week labelling Tokyo “the best ever prepared city” to host the Olympics.

For the citizens of Japan, not to mention the rest of the world, the games should come as welcome respite to over a year of uncertainty. In normal circumstances, the power of sport to unite communities and drive regeneration and economic growth is well recorded. In the case of Tokyo 2020, locals will have to wait to see what the full impact of the games will be.

Headshot of Hetty Hopkinson

Hetty Hopkinson is an account executive at Camargue