— Published 10 March 2021

The Tokyo Games without foreign spectators

A sad prospect. A week after the revelations of the daily Mainichi, another Japanese media, Kyodo News, in turn revealed that the government of Yoshihide Suga had already taken the decision to ban the presence of foreign spectators at the Tokyo Games. In both cases, the sources are anonymous but “close to the file”. Mass seems to have been said. It does not make anyone happy.

According to Kyodo News, the Japanese government did not wait for the Olympic torch to depart on March 25th, a date announced by organisers for a decision on the presence of a foreign audience. The authorities have already decided. They would consider it “impossible” to allow fans from all over the world entry into Japan. Reasons given: the “concerns of the Japanese public regarding the coronavirus“, and the discovery “of more contagious variants detected in many countries“.

From near and far, the position of the Japanese government appears legitimate and logical. Less than 140 days before the opening, it seems indeed impossible to imagine tens of thousands of foreigners disembarking in Tokyo at the end of July, then dispersing in the Olympic city, taking public transport, going to restaurants and attending the events.

Also according to Kyodo News, the organisers of the Games are due to meet next week with the IOC and the IPC during a meeting by videoconference. The official announcement of the absence of foreign spectators could come at the end of the meeting.

Officially, the IOC is sticking to the initial tally, namely a decision on the foreign audience at the end of March, then another on the gauge of Japanese spectators (and Japanese residents) in April. But the daily Asahi Shimbun understands that the Olympic body has started discussions with the Japanese to allow certain exceptions, primarily for foreign guests linked to the event’s global partners.

For Japan, the absence of an audience from abroad represents a considerable shortfall. Before the postponement of the Games, decided last March, around 900 000 tickets had been sold outside Japan. They will have to be reimbursed. The organising committee was hoping for ticket revenue totaling $800 million. About a tenth of this is expected to come from abroad.

In addition, the organising committee revealed that 810 000 reimbursement requests had already been registered. Most of them were filed by Japanese people who bought tickets before the postponement decision was made, but no longer wishing or unable to make it to the Games in 2021.

Beyond the ticketing issue alone, the absence of foreign visitors will also be heavy for the Japanese economy. Organisers estimated that around 1 million tourists were drawn to Japan by the Olympic and Paralympic event. The economic impact was to exceed $10 billion.

Japanese spectators who have not obtained the requested tickets will they wish to redeem the seats allocated to foreigners? Where will the national spectator gauge be at the competition venues? Will hotels accept refunds for rooms not occupied by visitors from all over the world?

With less than 140 days to go, questions continue to pile up, but answers are slow in coming. The only certainty, already mentioned by the Japanese media: with this decision, the government will have to review its growth strategy.