Taking on Tokyo: A discussion of the 2020 Olympic Games

By Isabella Green

The planning for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games began promisingly. During Japan’s selection to host the 2020 games, the country was widely hailed as a “safe pair of hands.” Adorable mascots were developed and placed on merchandise, including keychains and plush toys. The games would be the first to include skateboarding, leading to many fans eagerly anticipating its inclusion. Tokyo is an excellent choice of venue for a global sporting event. Japan’s largest city and capital has no shortage of hotels and restaurants to support the international crowd that typically swarms upon whatever city hosts the event. Athletes, coaches, journalists, judges, organizers, and volunteers all require goods and services that would pump money into the already substantial economy. However, even such a promising event would not be spared by the Covid-19 pandemic, which would reach the shores of Japan approximately seven months before the Tokyo 2020 games were slated to begin. Japan began the Covid-19 pandemic at a relative advantage. It was already common for people to wear face masks when sick, so the adjustment to constant use was relatively simple. When population density has been taken into account, Japan’s response to Covid has been strong and effective. Despite this initial advantage, Tokyo entered another state of emergency shortly before the start of the Olympics. 

Besides the state of emergency, many factors had complicated Tokyo’s role as the host of the games. While 90% of the staff at the Olympics were vaccinated, Tokyo’s vaccine center for the general public only opened on May 24th. Japan’s long and complicated history with vaccinations has been detrimental toward the push for widespread immunization.​​ In 1974 two infant deaths were linked to the DTwP vaccine, and more recently, the recommendation for the HPV vaccine was removed after reports of side effects. The history of vaccine hesitancy has already had effects in Japan. For example, the rate of new vaccinations for HPV is below 1%. There has been skepticism throughout the world, and Japan was not spared. The consequences for lacking vaccine enthusiasm have been and will continue to be wide-reaching throughout the globe. Covid-19 immunity will be a more significant struggle for governments and international health organizations facing a hesitant public, especially as many of these previous cases have affected children. It will be even more difficult to convince parents to vaccinate. 

Primarily influenced by the price tag increasing dramatically since the original estimate,  public opinion was not in favor of the athletic event. An increase in cost for the games could translate to a loss in spending for other programs or improvements that might have long-term benefits. In addition to concerns over the price, Tokyo residents had significant concerns over the possible repercussions of an international sports event. Other Olympic hosts have faced similar issues because of the cost that the taxpayer might face to fund the event and the costly development of single-use infrastructure to house events. Regardless of what public opinion might have been, the games were set to go on despite Tokyo’s entrance into a state of emergency. The rescheduling of the event from 2020 to 2021 had already produced complications. Another delay was out of the question as the 2022 winter Olympics are quickly approaching. Even with the money spent on precautions, the possibility of further Covid cases developing as a result of the games was a strong possibility. Many have pointed out that the money spent on precautions to delay the games to 2021 could have been spent on other matters, especially given the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Billions had already been spent on the games before the delay, which only resulted in greater costs without the promise of the ticket sales previously predicted. Money was recuperated with sponsorships and merchandise sales, which still bore the 2020 logos. Despite the substantial amount of money spent on Covid-19 precautions, some athletes were infected with the virus. This prevented many countries from competing in certain events and served as a reminder that not even the most well-prepared are guaranteed safety during an event that affects the entire world. The athletes that attended did so without the support of their families and competed to partially empty stadiums. A more vaccinated Tokyo could have seen an Olympics where athletes brought their families, and more spectators could have purchased tickets. 

In the long term, this Olympics will be remembered mostly for the victories and not for the multitude of complications that contributed to the delay of the games. Additionally, while this may hinder any future bids for Tokyo, a less profitable Olympics will not dent Japan’s prosperous economy. As the pandemic continues, other global entertainment events may look to the example set by Tokyo when considering how to proceed in complicated times. Cities that wish to host large international events will have to consider the vaccination rate of their population in addition to that of any staff or crew. A greater percentage of the Japanese population is getting vaccinated as time passes. Japan will open up again to tourists and the boom in travel that was anticipated pre-Covid could arrive. However, this can only happen with a widely vaccinated public, especially as Japan has a significant elderly population. With multiple factors at play and only a few in favor, it is important to remember that the Olympic and Paralympic Games are not solely about the host city turning a large profit. Cities organizers and representatives that put in Olympic bids understand that the benefits a city or country experiences might not always be direct. Approximately 15.4 billion US dollars were spent on the games; however, it is unclear how much money was recuperated through the sponsorships and licensing deals. 

However, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are about more than money. They are about bringing people together in the spirit of athletic competition to the benefit of all. A relatively small profit might not have been the desired result; however, monetary gains might not serve as the best markers of success for an event meant to serve a greater unifying purpose. With the turnaround time between Olympic games decreased because of the delay of the 2020 games, another Olympics is less than six months away. The 2022 Olympic venue will be Beijing; however, the Tokyo 2020 games will not be quickly forgotten. The games fulfilled many green promises, as can be seen on the official Olympics website. These slightly more eco-friendly measures could serve as an example for Olympics and other events to come that major sporting events do not have to leave dozens of unused buildings in their wake. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games might not have been what the athletes, organizers, people of Tokyo, or the International Olympic Committee envisioned in 2013 when their bid for the games was accepted; however, it will be an Olympics to remember. 

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