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8 June 2021, Gateway House

Obligatory Olympics: Tokyo 2021

Japan is going ahead with hosting the Tokyo Olympics, despite the pandemic, several delays and few economic or social benefits to come. It’s not entirely Japan’s choice – the International Olympic Committee is the owner of the Games, and its financial considerations matter.

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The Tokyo Olympics will start on 23 July and run through 8 August 2021, followed by the Paralympics (24 August – 5 September). The Games were delayed for a year, due to the Covid pandemic. The immaculate Japanese system suffered the ignominy of having to cede to the pandemic and postpone the Games. In choosing to go ahead with the Olympics, Japan will spare the Games from being cancelled.

The Japanese government is caught in a bind. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the owner of the Games. Cancellation is not a choice of the host country alone but is decided together with the IOC – which is determined to go on. John Coates, vice president of the IOC, committed that the Tokyo Olympics would be held even if Tokyo remained under a state of emergency, inviting criticism.[1] In this decision, the IOC is supported by the Japanese government, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), as well as the G7 countries.

There is much negativity surrounding the Games. Some Japanese host cities and citizens at large, are unhappy with the persistence of hosting the Olympics when Japan is in the midst of the fourth wave of the pandemic. According to a Nikkei/TV Tokyo survey in May, 62% of Japanese citizens sought a postponement or cancellation.[2] An Asahi Shimbun survey showed 43% favouring a cancellation and another 40%, a postponement.[3] A Kyodo poll showed 87.7% were concerned that athletes and staff from overseas may add to the spread of the pandemic.[4]

Lockdown measures are in place. Tokyo and Osaka, and seven of the 47 prefectures have extended their emergency provisions till 20th June, four weeks before the start of the Games. Dr Shigeru Omi, an adviser on the coronavirus to the Government, said that it is “abnormal” to host the Games during the pandemic.[5]

The Japanese government may lose support among the people, already unhappy with its handling of the pandemic, if the Games cause further misery. This is bad news for Japanese Prime Minister Suga. His ratings are already at new lows[6] and faces an election in September. Former PM Abe, came out with a statement backing Suga’s continuing leadership.[7]

In truth, it is the IOC’s responsibility to manage the Games and strengthen the organisation to avoid a crisis.[8]  It wants all participants to be vaccinated before the Games. The JOC is inoculating its teams[9] though in Japan barely 3.7% of the population has been vaccinated by the end of May 2021.[10] There is apprehension that foreign visitors could bring new strains of the virus. The Japanese health system is already precariously placed.

Why are the Olympics really taking place now and not cancelled? Any prestige or economic benefits are unlikely to emerge.  In 1964, Japan used the Olympics as a coming out party. It was the first time the Games were held in Asia. Gleaming new infrastructure was created in and around Tokyo. A New Japan, emerged from the Tokyo Olympics. India best remembers those Games for again winning the gold medal in hockey, after having lost it in 1960 in Rome.

Media coverage seems to be the core reason why the IOC does not want to renege on the Tokyo Olympics. IOC has contracts with major television networks, which provide the economic base of IOCs revenues. Similarly, the Olympics are scheduled when Tokyo is mushi atsui, at its humid worst when people avoid visiting Tokyo. Even in its original 2020 schedule this was a poor decision. Due to TV schedules, July-August have now become regular Olympic months. When Japan hosted the 1964 Games, they were held in salubrious October.[11]

There are financial losses also to be considered. Japan can suffer a loss of $ 17 billion if it cancels the Games – a loss it cannot afford.[12] The IOC has a $800 million cancellation insurance policy.[13] It never expected this black swan event. The loss from the lack of foreign spectators will be $1.33 billion. Gains from hotels, travel and tourism will be wiped out. It’s now not how to make gains, but avoid losses.

Suga has taken the gamble of seeing them through with determination.[14] The risks are palpable but if the Games do not cause damage to Japan, then Suga may improve his public support, which can benefit him politically. This appears to be a justification of the situation. Unsaid is the fact that Beijing, a strategic rival, is scheduled to hold the Winter Olympics in February 2022 and Japan does not want to be lagging behind China.

A Japanese organising committee member said privately that Japan was duty-bound to fulfil its obligations despite challenges. Besides the weather, Japan will prepare to deal with the potential Covid issues among the 100,000 participants and is confident about managing the situation, and limited cases.[15]  ”It is not matter of benefit alone” he said. “Wecannot give up our duty to welcome ’messengers of peace’ from all over the world.” This is the archetypical Japanese response: Courageously carrying out their obligations like destiny, irrespective of the challenges.[16]

Japanese technology, in the form of a large number of robotics and automated systems prepared for the Olympics, will now come in real use for social distancing. The mascot, Miraitowa, is a blend of the Future (Mirai) and Eternity (Towa). Japan intends to manifest that in good measure.

Gurjit Singh is Former Ambassador of India to Germany, Current Chair of the CII Task Force on Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1]IOC VP: Tokyo Olympics go ahead even if state of emergency, Asahi Shimbun, 22 may 2021,

[2] Suga’s approval rating plumbs new depths as emergency drags on, Nikkei Asia,31 May 2021,

[3] Over 80% of Japanese oppose Olympics this summer, poll shows, The Japan Times. 17 May 2021,

[4] Nearly 60% say Tokyo Olympics in summer should be cancelled: Kyodo poll Kyodo, 16 may 2021,

[5] Japan’s top COVID adviser says “not normal” for Olympics to be held, Kyodo, 2 June 2021,

[6] Suga’s approval rating plumbs new depths as emergency drags on, Nikkei Asia, 31 may 2021,

[7] Abe urges LDP members to use ‘common sense’ and support Suga in party poll, Japan Times, 4 may 2021,

[8] Japan’s top COVID adviser says “not normal” for Olympics to be held, Kyodo, 2 June 2021,

[9] 95% of Japan athletes at Tokyo Olympics to be vaccinated, Kyodo News, 3 June 2021, 95% of Japan athletes at Tokyo Olympics to be vaccinated

[10] Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination rate in Japan as of May 30, 2021, Statista, 31 May 2021,

[11] Gurjit Singh, Tokyo Olympics, A report, Madras Courier, 12 September 2019,

[12] Tokyo Games cancellation likely to cost Japan $17 bil. Kyodo News 25 May 2021,

[13]Carolyn Cohn, Noor Zainab Hussain Insurer’s face ‘mind-blowingly’ large loss if Olympics cancelled, Reuters, 27 January 2021,

[14] PM Suga vows Olympics will be proof of victory over virus, The Asahi Shimbun, 19 January 2021,

[15] Most Tokyo Games attendees enter Japan under eased quarantine rules, Kyodo News 1 June 2021,

[16] Interview with the author 4 June 2021