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Olympics: The world is ready to head to Tokyo, but Tokyo isn’t ready for the world

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To mark the 100-day countdown to the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, Team USA embarked on its ritualistic promotional tour. Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky hopped on the "Today Show." The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee launched a hype video. Ralph Lauren revealed Olympic outfits, and sponsors released Olympic-themed ads. The International Olympic Committee, meanwhile, celebrated the manufactured landmark, and called Tokyo the “best-prepared host city in Olympic history.”

As for Tokyo, the hosts themselves?

Some 80% of Japanese citizens say the Games should be postponed again or canceled.

And a senior Japanese government official commemorated the 100-day mark by saying that, “of course,” canceling the Games is still an option.

When it comes to the 2020 Olympics, never before has the disconnect between Japanese public opinion and Western opinion been so stark. To American athletes, Olympic officials, media and fans, it seems clear that the Games will indeed happen.

“They certainly will happen,” John Coates, an IOC vice president and chair of the Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission, said Wednesday.

Most sports leagues, after all, are back up and running amid the pandemic. Olympic organizers have outlined COVID-19 countermeasures and plan to create a semi-controlled environment in Tokyo. Meanwhile, vaccinations are gradually pushing COVID-19 out of our lives. A vast majority of U.S. athletes will be immunized by the time the Olympics begin in late July. American Olympians and sports administrators, therefore, are publicly and privately confident that the Games will go on, without further interruption. For most, uncertainty has evaporated. 

At a Team USA media event last week, reporters asked about training adjustments and qualifying disruptions, but few seemed to consider that the status of the Olympics might still be in question.

Except, that is, when Japanese media joined the video conference.

“What are you feeling on the Olympics actually taking place?” a reporter from NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, asked multiple U.S. athletes. “Were/are you worried they might be canceled or postponed again?”

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 25: Demonstrators protest against the Tokyo Olympics outside the building of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games on March 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Japan's nation-wide torch relay for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics started on Thursday in Fukushima ahead of the opening ceremony in Tokyo scheduled for July 23. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 25: Demonstrators protest against the Tokyo Olympics outside the building of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games on March 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Japan's nation-wide torch relay for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics started on Thursday in Fukushima ahead of the opening ceremony in Tokyo scheduled for July 23. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

What if the Olympics spread infection?

Skepticism within the host nation is neither temporary nor new. For months, polls have suggested that roughly four in five Japanese citizens believe the Olympics should be canceled or further postponed. That percentage has hardened amid what Japanese public health officials are calling a “fourth wave” of COVID-19. Some officials have called for the government to issue a state of emergency. The national case count spiked Wednesday, to its highest daily mark since mid-January. The exact number?

5,482, which would be a 12-month low in the United States.

Even adjusting for population size, the U.S. hasn’t seen prevalence that low since last June.

Japan, like much of east Asia, has taken COVID-19 far more seriously than the U.S. has. Its collective tolerance thresholds for sickness and death have been far lower than those in America and Europe. That’s why, by Western standards, Japan has been so successful at preventing sickness and death. Since the start of the pandemic, fewer people have tested positive for COVID in Japan than have died from COVID in the U.S. Japan’s total case count, some 517,000, even when adjusted for population size, is less than what the U.S. tallied over six days in January.

That low tolerance is also one reason the Japanese public is worried about the Games. Foreign spectators have been barred, but tens of thousands of people will still be traveling to Tokyo. Their movement and community interactions will be limited, but not entirely restricted. They won’t be completely bubbled up. There will be some risk of spread. “If the Olympics were to spread infection, then what are the Olympics for?” wondered that same senior Japanese government official, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party.

And whereas much of the U.S. will have the opportunity to be vaccinated well before the Games’ July 23 start, vaccine rollout in most countries has been far slower. Whereas nearly half of U.S. adults have already received at least one dose, only 6% of people around the world have.

And in Japan, that number is less than 1%.

Japan’s vaccination campaign began in mid-February, and has lagged far behind those of other developed nations ever since. Approval processes are strict, domestic development has lagged, import supply chains are complex and hesitancy exists. Without widespread vaccination, and with low COVID tolerance thresholds, the Olympics still seem like a risky proposition to the hosts.

‘Fully focused on hosting the Games this summer’

Nikai’s comments about cancellation got thousands of Japanese citizens talking Thursday. “If it seems impossible [to host the Olympics] any more, then we have to stop it, decisively,” Nikai told local broadcaster TBS.

But Nikai, the ruling party’s secretary general, isn’t in a position to make that call. The decision would be made jointly by the Japanese government, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and the IOC. And a vast majority of people within that complex web of power desperately want the Games to happen. To them, there are far more reasons to forge ahead than to pull the plug.

"All our delivery partners, including the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, the IOC and the IPC are fully focused on hosting the Games this summer," the Tokyo organizing committee said in a statement Thursday.

To be sure, there seems to be a sentiment within some parts of the Japanese government that mirrors that of the Japanese people. An anonymous senior ruling party official told The Times of London in January that “the consensus is that [holding the Olympics this summer] is too difficult. Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

But the public words and actions of nearly everybody involved in the organizing of the Olympics have indicated that the Games will happen. Qualifiers are kicking into gear. Some trials have been completed, and more will be — with precautions but without uncertainty — throughout April, May and June.

Nikai later clarified his comments. “I want the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to succeed,” he said in a statement. “At the same time, to the question of whether we would host the [Games] no matter what, that is not the case. That’s what I meant by my comments.”

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga then told reporters Thursday that “there’s no change to the government’s stance.”

That stance, he said, is “to do everything possible to prevent the spread of infections as we head towards the Olympics.”

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