TOKYO 2020, the Olympic Games without Precedent:
An Observation from a Host Country Perspective
Postponed for one year and amid an acute aggravation of the pandemic situation, the Tokyo Olympic Games closed their 17-day programs without serious disruption. It was almost amazing that it ended this way despite the added difficulties such as heat and humidity and simultaneous occurrence of typhoons during the Olympic period. In many respects, TOKYO 2020 will be remembered as Olympics without precedent. It presents, therefor, a number of important matters for reflection for future Games.
Numerous hurdles and constraints
From the very beginning, the IOC and the Japanese organizers (i.e., Government, Organizing Committee, Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) and Tokyo Metropolis) were in close collaboration steadfastly determined to carry out the games according to the original schedule. But in view of the rapid outbreak of the COVID-19, it was decided in March 2020 to postpone the Games for one year by agreement between the IOC and the Japanese organizers. It was a very painful decision for the latter, but in my opinion, it was even more so for the athletes around the world who had exerted painful efforts preparing for the Olympics as their life-staking challenges.
As member of the All Japan Judo Federation, I personally know the judoists selected for the Olympics and could feel how difficult it was for them to maintain their physical as well as mental conditions strong for another whole year. In Japan the number of infected cases and deaths had been maintained at a low level compared to other major countries, and Prime Minister SUGA Yoshihide reiterated his determination to hold Tokyo Olympics in a safe and secure environment and made strenuous efforts for that purpose. The Japanese organizers worked out stringent rules and measures to curb the movements of athletes, officials and personnel during the Games for sanitary purposes. The prime minister went so far as to say to the effect that Japan would be able to make the Tokyo Olympics as a proof that humanity vanquished the pandemic. But over the year, the specter of the coronavirus not only persisted but showed an explosive rise as the opening of the great event approached. Very regrettably the Japanese side and the IOC were obliged to hold most games without spectators.
Another high hurdle was the persistent skepticism on the part of the Japanese public about holding the Games at this conjuncture. Even a well-known Olympian told me she was not in favor of holding Olympics in the current situation. Skeptics argued that it was evident that the Games would not be carried out in a safe and secure environment, what the value of the Games would be without spectators and without free movement of people.
Games without spectators
“Games without spectators” is another unprecedented feature in the history of Olympic Games. I was personally convinced that this formula nevertheless could well realize the value of Olympics because of my recent experience. Some readers may remember that last December the All Japan Judo Federation organized an unusual single bout to determine the representative of Japan for the 66kg weight category. It was the only category for which an Olympic athlete had not been selected because ABE Hifumi and MARUYAMA Joshiro were the two top judoists whose capabilities were almost equal and there was no other way to determine which one to choose. This bout was held without spectators due to the virus risk. I was staring at the television screen to follow the long-lasted match between the two excellent athletes. It was truly intense that in the serene atmosphere one could hear their respirations, the sound of their steps and the thuds of falling bodies on the tatami floor very clearly. I could also observe the intricate exchanges of their techniques trying to take an advantageous position. It was as if I were watching the duel very closely. Soon after the Federation successively carried out without spectators the Japan Judo Championship (for men) and the Empress Cup Championship (for women) which had been postponed from April because of the pandemic. I watched them closely and felt the same sensation.
This experience brought home to me that the no-spectator-format, if not possible to enable us to enjoy enthusiastic cheers of spectators, can make it possible to appreciate the value and quality of competitions between the world’s top athletes more vividly than otherwise. Moreover, a huge number of people in the world can watch the athletes compete through television and YouTube. Watching television every day during the Olympic period, I was often moved by the scenes of elations of athletes, many heart-warming scenes of friendship among participating athletes of different nations/ethnicities after their competitions. I believe that even without spectators “the Tokyo model” did contribute to the goal of Olympism, which is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society.
What we achieved and what we learned from the Tokyo experience
Very luckily TOKYO 2020 ended with no major disruption. Behind the scenes there were a huge number of people working for athletes and organizers; volunteers, medical and sanitary personnel, accommodations and culinary staff, security corps, transportation teams, constructors, furnishers, etc., always conscientiously devoted to their duties. To all of them we are so grateful. Despite the alarming pace of COVID-19 infection in Japan, the Tokyo Olympics recorded the highest level of attendance in terms of participating athletes and countries/regions: more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries/regions took part in the Games. The number of events was also record-high. TOKYO 2020 added a few new sports which attracted the younger generation. A great number of miraculous performances and Olympic records amazed people around the world. President of JOC, YAMASHITA Yasuhiro, told me that all the athletes and officials he met at the closing ceremony and thereafter expressed sincere gratitude to Japan for holding the Games in this difficult situation they had so much aspired to participate in. With this positive outcome, some earlier negative public opinion turned more positive about holding the Games. Thanks to TOKYO 2020 the somber atmosphere prevailing under the virulent coronavirus was alleviated for a while and we were able to reconfirm the great value of sports and Olympism.
If the previous Tokyo Olympics of 1964 served as a valuable impetus for Japan’s subsequent economic development, TOKYO 2020 may be remembered in the future as an occasion for promoting its societal transformation. Our organizers have made innovative initiatives and through numerous trials and errors they have learned the ways to make coordination internally and internationally under difficult circumstances. “Unity in Diversity” was one of the visions adopted by Japanese organizers and this helped raise awareness and respect of the Japanese public of the difference in race, color, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In fact, we observed a number of Japanese athletes of mixed race and foreign transgender athletes making excellent performances. The Paralympic Games to be held in a week will further strengthen the Japanese people’s awareness of and respect for diversity.
Matters for reflection
It will take some time to make objective assessment of the Games just ended. But at this stage I would like to present my personal views on the legacies and lessons learned from the Tokyo experience. TOKYO 2020 carried out under extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic obliged the organizers to take unprecedented ways to cope with the situation. In this regard, the case of Tokyo seems to offer some useful materials for reflection. I would like to make three points below in terms of certain aspects of the recent Olympic Games which have been the object of international criticism.
(1) Mounting cost of hosting Olympics
The splendorous opening ceremonies in London and in Beijing still stay strong in my memory. They were so impressive that I rather enjoyed them but extravagant features of Olympics with its concomitant high cost have begun to deter governments from presenting candidature for hosting. The TOKYO 2020 under the COVID-19 obliged the organizers to simplify or rationalize programs and events. The opening ceremony was somewhat modest. Though it was a little too long, it seemed to display Japan’s national pride in culture, traditional and modern technology, the nation’s resilience in times of disasters and so forth. It demonstrated that without splendor, there should be ways for each hosting nation to present their pride and the joy of gathering in Olympic Games. Japan presented an example. The Olympic community is expected to consider seriously how they can reduce cost without undermining the value and spirit of Olympism.
(2) Tendency towards greater government involvement in vying for medals
Olympic Games are a precious occasion to invigorate and nurture national pride and spirit. It is also a good opportunity for governments to enhance athletic capabilities of their nations. But in reality there are cases in which certain governments extend a large portion of budget with a view to earning as many medals as possible as if it were a business undertaking of a state enterprise. As a result, we witness today an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in supporting their athletes. Thus, there exists inequality of opportunities for athletes to participate in Olympics and in certain cases competent athletes change their nationality to be adopted by a wealthy country. The IOC are making efforts to help poorer countries to send more of their athletes to the Games. But more efforts are needed internationally to create a scheme to ensure greater inclusiveness in sports.
Incidentally, Japan, too, is eager to earn many medals and as the host country has recently increased budget to further develop certain athletic events. The Japanese are happy that their athletes earned so many medals this time. It is my humble opinion however, that we as a nation should not be too particular about the number of medals earned. Besides, the Tokyo Olympics were held in an extraordinary situation where opportunities for participation and conditions of training in Japan just prior to actual competition were not equal among countries and athletes due to strict sanitary controls imposed.
(3) Time of holding summer games
TOKYO 2020 was held from July 23 through August 8, the hottest season in the monsoon Japan. Organizers have exerted tremendous efforts to alleviate the effect of heat and humidity on athletes. For example, the venue of marathon and race walking had been changed from Tokyo to normally much cooler Sapporo in the northernmost island of Hokkaido. But this year the heat and humidity were higher than usual including Sapporo! About thirty male marathon runners had to retire on the way of the course because of the severe climatic conditions. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 were held in October, the time of cool autumnal weather in Japan. It is generally believed that Olympics are held now in mid-summer so that the giant American media which are major sponsors of Olympic Games may concentrate their work on American football and basketball games in the fall season. In recent years, impacts of the climate change have been causing serious damage globally. The timing of current “summer” Olympics should be reconsidered on the “athletes first” principle together with the ways to reduce cost and work out a more rational system of cost bearing.
It is high time the IOC took the lead in launching debates on making necessary reforms in the current Olympic systems.
(August 16, 2020)
OGAWA Gotaro is a former Japanese diplomat, a judo practitioner and serves as Special Adviser in charge of international affairs at the All Japan Judo Federation. Views expressed here are all his personal ones.