With COVID-19 cases and deaths still at record highs in many countries, Japan is preparing to host the Olympics, set to begin July 23, 2021. Originally scheduled to begin July 2020, Tokyo 2020 was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. Although Japan has been relatively successful at containing the outbreak, with only 419,000 cases and 7,102 deaths to date, the country has been hit with a recent spike in cases and only began distributing vaccines to essential workers as of February 14th.

Recent Change in JOC Leadership

Last week, Yoshiro Mori, President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, was forced to resign in the wake of his comments at a Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) meeting, where he stated, “if we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying”. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) added that Mori’s comments about women were “absolutely inappropriate”. After a short apology, however, Mori remained President until significant international backlash for his comments grew. The response stemmed largely from the efforts of 22-year-old Japanese college student Momoko Nojo and her #DontBeSilent social media campaign against the sexist remarks, which gathered over 150,000 signatures. Seiko Hashimoto, seven-time Olympian and government minister, took over as President on February 18, a unique act in a country with significant gender equality issues. 

Russian Ban

Another significant change at this year’s Tokyo Games will be the absence of the Russia’s flag, name, and anthem, after the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia from competing internationally for four years. The ban was based on evidence of a cheating scheme that a Russian whistleblower publicized, whereby Russian anti-doping experts and intelligence service officials replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean samples at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. However, under much controversy, Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in the Olympics under a neutral flag. Many sports officials have argued this punishment will be insufficient at deterring future acts of cheating.

New COVID-19 Guidelines and Vaccinations

This summer’s Tokyo Games will also feature noticeable differences due to the pandemic, including rules that ban singing and chanting during events, as well as mandatory mask-wearing inside. The IOC has released guidelines on mandatory health rules, which include preventing all international federation officials and staff from using public transport without permission, appointing a COVID-19 liaison officer to each delegation, and handwashing protocols to disinfecting dining tables. However, with a troubling recent rise in COVID-19 infections, the Japanese public is increasingly opposed to hosting the Games, with one recent poll indicating that 77% believe that they should be postponed again or cancelled. These figures may not be surprising, with Japan’s vaccine schedule aiming to secure enough vaccines to reach a critical mass of the population by the end of June 2020, just two weeks shy of the Olympics. While IOC Officials are reiterating that despite enormous differences from any past Olympics, they will be able to hold the event safely this year, neither the JOC or IOC will require the 11,000-plus athletes expected to be vaccinated for the coronavirus. Some countries, including Hungary and Serbia, have already begun vaccinating athletes who will compete at the Tokyo Olympics, allowing them to skip the vaccination line ahead of some healthcare workers and the elderly. This has been the subject of much Olympic controversy, with many countries’ Olympic committees making the decision not to lobby their governments’ for early vaccinations for their athletes. Dick Pound, former McGill chancellor and IOC member, has argued that in order to ensure the Olympics remain “a wonderful success in the face of a worldwide pandemic”, athletes should be a top priority for vaccines.

Economic Costs and Benefits of Hosting the Games

John Coates, former Olympics administrator and current IOC member, is pushing for the games to continue, promising that “these games can help kick-start the economy again. These games could be the rebirth of the tourism industry”. This push to hold the Olympics is largely due to the perceived economic stimulus Tokyo may reap from increased tourism. However, in a February 2021 Reuters corporate survey about the impact of the Tokyo Olympics on the Japanese economy, 88% of companies surveyed indicated they expected either “limited” or “not much” effect, with only 5% expecting a “big” economic boost. Also, nearly two-thirds of surveyed firms oppose holding the Tokyo Olympics as planned, significantly different results from the previous November corporate survey, which showed that 68% of companies surveyed support the Olympics taking place as scheduled. Since November, however, COVID-19 has surged in the country, with daily case averages topping 5,000, while in January, Tokyo was forced to declare its first state of emergency since April.

Notwithstanding the recent virus surge or former JOC President Mori’s remarks, Tokyo citizens should doubt Coates’ claim that hosting the Olympics will boost the city’s economy. Studies on past Olympics have indicated that the Games often detract would-be tourists due to high costs and crowding. University of Toronto professor Helen Lenskyj argues that Coates’ optimistic predictions “fly in the face of all the research on the financial impacts of hosting the games,” even without considering the global pandemic. In addition, sports economists Victor Matheson and Robert Baumann calculated the economic impact of foreign tourism at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics to be at $300 million, while the city spent at least $13 billion. Tokyo has already committed $12.6 billion to funding the Olympics, $7 billion of which is taxpayer-funded. Matheson and Baumann concluded that “in most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities; they result in positive net benefits only under very specific and unusual circumstances.” The 2021 Games-which will be held in a country recovering from its worst wave of the virus and in the aftermath of a pandemic that has killed millions worldwide and devastated national economies-will be held in painfully negative and unusual circumstances.

Edited by Charlotte Gurung.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Photo obtained via Creative Commons under a CC BY-2.0 license.