Cruel coincidence of the calendar. Just 100 days before the opening of the Tokyo Games on Wednesday, April 14th, the Olympic Torch Relay was diverted from its intended route in the Osaka Prefecture. It should have taken the main streets of the city. But at the request of the local authorities, the torchbearers were diverted to a public park in a neighbouring town, where spectators were banned from entering.
The torch relay was supposed to arouse the enthusiasm of the Japanese public for the Olympic cause. With 100 days to go, it especially rekindles the mistrust of the Games, and its fear of seeing the event transform the capital into a new cluster of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eight years ago, when voting for the host city of the 2020 Games, the IOC had designated Tokyo, praising the stability and security guaranteed by Japan and its capital. With just over three months to go, the Games are shrouded in such a blanket of uncertainty that it remains difficult to talk about it without abusing the conditional mode.
Despite the eternally optimistic words of the IOC, the questions continue to tumble. But answers are slow. And, with them, the mystery concerning the practical unfolding of an event which all participants have made up their minds will be unlike anything known.
The health crisis
In Japan, as elsewhere, the indicators remain stuck in the red. Japan has recorded more than 513 000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, including 9 500 deaths. These numbers are lower than those of most of the richest nations on the planet. But Tokyo, with more than 126 000 cases, is largely leading the train of the Japanese cities most affected by the pandemic.
The vaccination campaign started late in Japan. It currently concerns only the Japanese people aged 65 and over, or around 36 million people. As the campaign progresses, it seems almost impossible that the volunteers, recruited by the organising committee and local authorities, can be vaccinated before the start of the Games. The same goes for future spectators.
In Tokyo, experts make it no secret of their fears of seeing a new explosion in the number of cases, before the Games, and even more when athletes, supervisors, officials and media from 205 countries set foot in Japan.
Comment from Hidemasa Nakamura, one of the logistics officers on the organising committee: “The situation is constantly changing. It is very difficult to continue preparations without knowing where we will be with the pandemic in the coming weeks“.
The decision has been taken, painful but inevitable: foreign spectators will not be admitted to the Games. But what about the Japanese and residents in Japan? The IOC and the organising committee announced a decision on spectator numbers at the competition venues at the end of April.
Once again, both parties will have to decide without having all the cards in hand. They will have to decide on the question without knowing where the health situation will be at the time of the Games.
By aiming too high, organisers are putting themselves at risk of an outbreak of infections. By seeing too low, they will further reduce their box office receipts and get closer to a closed door event that no one wants to hear about.
The only certainty: the Japanese will not scramble to recover the banknotes abandoned by foreigners. According to the latest poll, less than a quarter of Japanese people want the Games to be held on schedule. The others want a cancellation or a new postponement, fearing more than anything the health risk. In such a context, it is difficult to imagine the Japanese public running at the stadium like in the best days.
Long prominent among Olympic subjects, to the point of prompting the IOC to force a relocation to Sapporo of the marathon and walking events, the heat has receded in the order of concern since the start of the pandemic. But it remains a real danger. It could even wreak havoc on the anti-COVID plan drawn up by the organisers.
Asked by Reuters, Hidemasa Nakamura said it will be difficult “to find the balance between combating the effects of heat and implementing measures against the coronavirus”. It is indeed difficult to impose a mask on a spectator near sunstroke for queuing in the sun at the entrance to a competition venue.
Another headache, noted by Japanese experts, is that the symptoms of heat exhaustion can be similar to those of the coronavirus.
In both cases, the Games will require the deployment of a large number of medical or paramedical personnel, to the Olympic venues, but also to the athletes’ village and to the health centers provided for in the Olympic system. But the health crisis is currently mobilising most of the troops. Where to find the caregivers to mobilise for the Games? Another unanswered question.