— Published 3 June 2021

With 50 days to go before the Games, cancellations follow withdrawals

Tokyo 2020

The date should have been shrouded in impatience and excitement. The countdown clock shows exactly 50 days before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games, this Thursday, June 3rd. Fifty days. The last push. But, by a twist of fate, it is accompanied in Japan by a cruel succession of withdrawals and cancellations.

The most massive withdrawal concerns volunteers. The Games organising committee admitted to the media that, during the last record, around 10,000 volunteers had withdrawn over the past few months. The exodus began in February, after the controversy that arose from the sexist remarks of the former president of the organising committee, Yoshiro Mori. Since then, it has continued at a steady pace.

According to Toshiro Muto, general manager of the organising committee, those who left mentioned the sanitary crisis and the risks of infection linked to the arrival of several tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world, but also the constraints of their professional and personal schedules.

The figure is not insignificant. Ten thousand defections in just a few months is not anecdotal for an Olympic event. But Toshiro Muto calmly explained that the effects of this wave of withdrawals could turn out to be very little visible. The organising committee had thought big, recruiting 80,000 volunteers. Some of them will be able to officiate at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Games’ general manager suggests. Above all, the absence of foreign spectators considerably reduces the need for volunteers.

More embarrassingly, the Japanese television channel NHK revealed it had learned that many doctors who were supposed to work during the Games at the competition venues had given up. They reportedly justified their decision because of the impossibility of reconciling their presence at the venues with their professional obligations.

Recruiting medical staff has been a serious headache for the Games’ organisers since the sanitary crisis began. The matter even became controversial when Toshiro Muto announced his intention to mobilise 500 nurses during the event.

Since then, the organisers have announced that they have secured around 80% of the required medical staff. But this percentage could decline if defections continue among volunteer doctors.

The wave of withdrawals is not only affecting the organisation of the Games in the capital. It is also affecting the preparation of the teams. During the last count, more than 100 municipalities across Japan had to cancel training camps for foreign delegations before the Games began. In most cases, the cancellation was decided by the teams. But sometimes the decision was taken by local authorities.

The Kenyan Olympic Committee announced on Wednesday, June 2nd, that the city of Kurume, in the prefecture of Fukuoka, had informed it at the beginning of the week that it was unable to receive its athletes before their arrival at the Olympic village. The reason given was an “extremely serious sanitary situation, which has become critical since mid-April.”

The municipal authorities told the Kenyan Olympic Committee that the sports facilities that were to be made available to the athletes had been turned into vaccination centres. The Kenyan team was due to prepare for 12 days in Kurume, starting on July 7th.

Foreign delegations decided not to participate in other places. The US track and field team cancelled its training camp in Narita. The Canadian swimming federation announced to the municipality of Toyota, the world headquarters of the car manufacturer, that its swimmers would no longer come in July.

In Kamo, a city of 25,000 in northwestern Japan, the authorities had spent more than $600,000 on equipment and a gymnasium renovation to accommodate the entire Russian gymnastics team of 42 athletes and staff. But their training camp was cancelled for sanitary reasons.

The French table tennis team, on the other hand, has maintained its stay in Kofu, in the prefecture of Yamanashi. The table tennis players are due to arrive in Japan on July 12th. They will prepare in Kofu before leaving for the athletes’ village on July, 20th. However, the cultural exchange and protocol programme initially planned, including a reception at the town hall and a visit to the vineyard, has been cancelled.