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THURSDAY, December 07, 2023

Suga’s govt faces its own Olympic event: tightrope walking

Suga’s govt faces its own Olympic event: tightrope walking
SATURDAY, July 24, 2021

The Tokyo Olympics have begun. The path leading to this point has been anything but smooth, and the government will continue walking a tightrope over the next two weeks.

Due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, these Games were the first in history to be delayed by one year, and most events will be held in stadiums without spectators. Tokyo remains under a state of emergency, the opening ceremony’s composer resigned, and its director was dismissed in the past week, capping a tumultuous build-up to the sports extravaganza.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga could not conceal his frustration with the Games organizers over the string of scandals just before the Olympics get under way. “I think the organizing committee is taking these issues seriously. I hope they make the necessary preparations and properly do what needs to be done,” Suga said to reporters in front of the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday.

The stunning firing of the director because of discriminatory comments he made years ago was the latest black eye for an Olympics that faces significant challenges to go ahead even as the coronavirus pandemic rumbles on.

As infections continued to spread, Suga believed vaccinations would be a silver bullet to ensure the Games would be a success.

Even after the second state of emergency was declared for Tokyo and other areas in January, Suga remained bullish. “Provided we can inject [enough] vaccines, the atmosphere will completely change once summer rolls around,” Suga repeatedly told his close aides. He had high expectations that administering vaccines would deliver a dramatic improvement in Japan’s infection situation.

However, delays in the vaccine rollout and the emergence of coronavirus variants have stymied efforts to bring the virus under control and dashed Suga’s expectations.

■ Shrinking spectator numbers

At one point, the government insisted the Olympics would be held in a “complete form.” However, in March, it was decided that overseas spectators would be banned from attending the Games, and in June an upper limit of 10,000 spectators from Japan was set for each event. Step by step, the organizers were forced to pare back the number of fans allowed to attend. The declaration of the fourth state of emergency for Tokyo on July 8 rendered the bulk of Olympic competition venues closed to any regular spectators.

This resulted in a striking contrast between the spectator-less Olympics and other sporting events that were going ahead with fans in the stands. This was because under government-set criteria, up to 5,000 spectators could be permitted even during a state of emergency.

A senior official of the organizing committee was at a loss for an answer when a high-ranking International Olympic Committee member visiting Japan asked why crowds were allowed to watch soccer warm-up games and other sports but would not be allowed to attend the actual matches at the Olympics. “I said that couldn’t be helped because the Olympics needed the public’s understanding, but they weren’t convinced by that answer,” the organizing committee official said.

■Suga still optimistic

Through all this, Suga remained confident and optimistic about the Games. In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Suga said: “They say about four billion people around the world are going to watch on television. In that sense, if you’re talking about what the value of doing it without spectators [is], well, it’s enormous.”

Suga envisions a strategy in which the Olympics lift the feeling of helplessness pervading the nation, which in turn gives his administration momentum ahead of the House of Representatives election that must be held before Oct. 22.

However, ensuring the Olympics go smoothly is akin to walking a tightrope. It is hard to predict whether the Games will end on a successful note.

The athletes must follow rules that ensure they take the utmost care of their health before arriving in Japan, and they are regularly tested while here. However, several athletes have already withdrawn from their events because they caught the coronavirus. If infections spread among the athletes, it is possible some matches might not be able to go ahead. There are mounting concerns within the organizing committee that the way these Games are being run “could be branded as a failure” around the world.

The “bubbles” set up to restrict the movements and activities of tens of thousands of athletes and Olympic officials and to keep them from contact with people not involved in the Games are already showing their limits. The “worst-case scenario” keeping government officials awake at nights would be a situation in which infections spread from Olympic athletes or officials to members of the Japanese public, which could eventually strain medical care services in Tokyo and other areas.

Some models predict that Japan’s current surge in infection numbers will peak in early August, around the time the curtain comes down on the Olympics.

A Cabinet minister involved in dealing with coronavirus issues was concerned about the possible political ramifications of that scenario. “If the medical system comes under pressure because of the Olympics, it could spell the end for this administration,” the minister said.

■Games preparations full of mishaps

In September 2013, Japan won the bid to host the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, beating Turkey and Spain, and the country was in a celebratory mood.

Shinzo Abe, who was then prime minister, declared, “We will show the world Japan’s recovery from the [2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami],” and came up with the theme of “Recovery Olympics.”

Since the successful bid, issues surrounding the preparation for the Games have emerged one after another.

The design of the new National Stadium was changed due to soaring costs, and the original Games emblem was scrapped due to accusations of plagiarism.

Organizing committee executives and staff have faced public criticism due to their actions and remarks, including a sexist gaffe by former organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori that led to his resignation.

The situation changed dramatically after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, Abe agreed to postpone the Games for one year in a telephone conversation with IOC President Thomas Bach, in order to realize a “safe and secure Games.”

“Needless to say, the next leader will also aim for that,” Abe stressed at a press conference announcing his resignation as prime minister in August of the same year.

For Abe’s successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the commitment to the Games is significant to protect the political legacy of the previous administration, which he supported as its chief cabinet secretary.

The Games, which are supposed to be an apolitical festival where athletes compete, have become political because of the issue of whether it is appropriate to hold the event amid a pandemic. Explaining the situation to the public has become the most pressing concern.

Public opposition to the Games is still strong. “The prime minister just kept repeating ‘safe and secure’ and did not explain the significance of holding the Games thoroughly,” said a former cabinet member of the Liberal Democratic Party.