Japan is one of several countries where the virus has made a comeback in winter months with Tokyo finding a record 2,447 cases last Thursday. The discovery of a new and possibly more infectious strains in the U.K. and South Africa has also alarmed governments around the world. With less than 200 days left until the opening ceremony, the situation has revived questions about the feasibility of safely holding even a limited version of the quadrennial games.
While Japan’s infection count has been well below other rich industrialized nations, the pandemic has been a persistent cloud over the Olympics since they were delayed almost a year ago. The restart of sports events around the world and development of vaccines have provided some optimism, but organizers have said the 2020 Olympics will be canceled — not delayed — if they can’t go on as scheduled. That said, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated he was determined to hold the games even as he announced the new restrictions.
“Under the state of emergency, the idea is that it will likely take a long time to contain the pandemic,” said Kenji Shibuya, professor and director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College London, and an outspoken critic of Japan’s coronavirus response. When asked whether March was an appropriate time to decide on holding the Games, and details on how if they proceed, he said “it’s not realistic that they can come up with measures by March.”
Set to last for a month, current emergency restrictions are narrowly focused on reducing infections at bars and eateries, while events have been spared from across-the-board cancellations. If the less stringent measures fail to change people’s behavior, however, the declaration will drag on.
Japan’s top virus adviser Shigeru Omi has said lifting the state of emergency on time will be almost impossible, and that restrictions could continue until March or April, though he later said it could be lifted in a month if the public cooperates. Either way, that would leave little room to make a decision on the games. Last year’s determination to postpone the games was made in late March, even before the stricter first emergency, which lasted through late May.
Failure to contain cases quickly would also impact planning for even a scaled-down games. A need for extensive testing and quarantine of participants would add to the unprecedented logistical effort of rearranging events, contractors and venues. It could also inflate Japan’s already historic price tag for the games of 1.35 trillion yen ($13 billion).
The state of emergency will also complicate the arrival of participants, in addition to unresolved questions of whether to allow local and overseas fans. Those determinations may be made more difficult by the virus mutations first found in the U.K. and South Africa that have spread globally. Japan has already tightened its border controls in response to the new strains.
The Tokyo 2020 Committee has indicated that it will need to decide on a limit on spectators and restrictions on entering the country from overseas by this spring, due to the ticketing process. Other counter-coronavirus measures can still be adjusted after the spring, according to the group. As of now, the games are set to begin on July 23, a year after they were originally due to start.
Adding to the pressure to hold the Olympics is the widespread resumption of sports events in countries around the world, regardless of their infection numbers. Almost every athletic event globally was halted in early 2020 along with the Tokyo games. By summer, however, countries that coped well with the virus like Japan had resumed spectator sports, eventually with fans.
Leagues in the worst-hit areas, such as the the National Basketball Association in the U.S. and the U.K. Premier League, were successfully held. Japan also hosted the first international sports tournament during the pandemic — a four-nation gymnastics competition — in November, without apparent difficulties.
“There’s too much evidence that professional sports can go ahead in this environment,” said Roy Tomizawa, author of “1964 – The Greatest Year in the History of Japan” on the country’s first summer Olympics. “Athletes early last year thought it wasn’t safe, but now they see other sports leagues operating without major incident so they don’t feel it’s as big of a problem.”
There are more reasons for optimism that the games will happen this year than there were in early 2020. One is the development of several vaccines. Suga told a local TV station last week that he expects vaccines to build reassurance ahead of the Olympics.
Even so, most countries have not begun to inoculate their populations, and may not be able to start in time. Japan isn’t expected to begin vaccinations until late February, and the distribution of shots has been slow in most countries that have already started giving them.
Vaccines also raise tough choices for organizers and athletes. Japanese officials have said they won’t require vaccinations for overseas spectators, and the IOC has stated the same for athletes, but that could change depending on the virus situation. IOC member Dick Pound suggested in a recent interview with the BBC that the shots could be made a condition for participants before entering Japan. He added that they would be high up on the vaccine priority list, which could raise questions of fairness. Athletes may also be hesitant to get vaccinated over performance concerns.
Some experts are split on whether the games should go on. Norio Sugaya, a visiting professor at Keio University’s School of Medicine in Tokyo and a member of a World Health Organization panel advising on pandemic influenza, said he was against holding the Olympics this summer. “It’s meaningless to provide a medical standpoint for something most Japanese people don’t want,” he said. In an NHK poll conducted Jan. 9-11, 38% of respondents said the games should be canceled and 39% said they should be delayed again.
But Nobuhiko Okabe, the director general of Kawasaki City’s Institute for Public Health and member of the government’s expert panel, said that it would be possible to hold the games in some form even today.
“The most important thing for the Olympics is that athletes can compete,” he said. “In that sense, it’s possible to hold the games given the current extent of infections.”
Yoshihito Niki, a visiting professor at the division of infectious diseases at Showa University, said one option would be to increase the interval between games to mitigate concerns over infections. “If they are holding the games this summer, they should be splitting sports events and hold them sporadically, like two games a week at most,” he said.