Motoko Rich and Ben Dooley
c.2020 The New York Times Company
TOKYO — The unprecedented decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until next summer because of the coronavirus pandemic brought relief to the athletes and national teams that had pushed for a suspension of the games even as its organizers appeared to defy the inevitable.
But for Japan, delaying the world’s largest sporting event will pose economic, political and logistical challenges no other nation has faced — including where to store the Olympic flame for a year, how to manage thousands of ticket holders who no longer know what dates they have committed to, and whether the country can hope to recoup its $10 billion investment.
The Tokyo organizing committee has to persuade a staff of 3,500 — many of whom were seconded from corporate sponsors and were scheduled to return to work at those companies in the fall — to stay on for 12 more months.
Hotels will need to rebook thousands of visitors. The real estate company that is converting the Olympic Village into condominiums now has to push its renovation schedule out another year and potentially redo thousands of contracts with buyers.
There is even the question of how to refer to the delayed games. Although both the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, and the chairman of the Tokyo organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, said that the Olympics would continue, however awkwardly, to be known as Tokyo 2020, social media lit up with dozens of suggestions like Tokyo 2020: 2.0 or Tokyo 2020 R2, as well as playfully altered Olympic logos.
As Japan extends its multibillion-dollar Olympic effort by a year, its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will have to convince the country that he can keep control of an unwieldy mix of tasks and hurdles, even as he tries to steer the nation clear of a global viral outbreak that has so far remained contained within Japan but has the potential to explode at any moment.
At least for now, the delay in declaring a postponement, which Abe relented to Tuesday after seemingly every other major sporting event had been canceled or pushed back, has allowed him time to recover from earlier missteps.
Last month, Japan was accused of bungling its response to the coronavirus outbreak on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which spent two weeks quarantined in Yokohama. And critics raised questions about whether Japan had waited too long to impose entry bans on people traveling from China when the epidemic was centered in Wuhan.
“I think that the prime minister would have been infinitely more bruised if the decision happened in the context of where Japan was just a few weeks ago,” said Mireya Solís, co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There would have been questions about whether those responses would have cost Japan the Olympics or put people at risk.”
Now, Solís said, the fact that Abe was able to avoid an outright cancellation of the games “will be seen as a skillful management.”
If the world can bring the coronavirus to heel in the next year, the postponed games could serve as a “grand farewell a few months before Abe’s set to leave office,” said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence in Washington.
“It’s a big symbolic moment for Japan if the world is actually able to convene,” Harris said. “It becomes the ‘we’ve overcome the pandemic games,’ and Japan gets to kind of be the orchestrator for that.”
Yet with the fast-moving coronavirus, what is true today could easily change tomorrow, and the fortunes of Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, could swing with it. For now, Japan has managed to limit outbreaks and has not reported high numbers of deaths or overburdened intensive-care units.
Skeptics warn that Japan may be vastly underreporting infection rates because it is not testing people nearly as much as other countries. They worry that the number of severe illnesses and deaths could rise drastically, particularly among Japan’s disproportionately older population.
Another challenge for Japan’s leader is the economy, the relative strength of which had fueled his longevity in power but which now is on the brink of a deep recession.
Starting late last year, even before tourism evaporated as the coronavirus spread, Japan’s economy had been shrinking because of a slump in Chinese demand for Japanese exports and reduced consumer spending after Abe increased taxes last fall to cope with Japan’s rapidly aging population.
The Olympics were supposed to help revive the economy. Now, that boost must wait a year, and it will follow what most likely will be a disastrous global recession.
It is not clear who will bear the possible additional costs of extended leases on facilities or continued maintenance of venues. The delayed games “could be a political burden because the government must make additional expenditures for the preparation of the Olympic Games during an economic crisis,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.
“The Olympic Games might be a liability rather than a political opportunity for Prime Minister Abe,” Yamaguchi said.
For the public, which overwhelmingly indicated in opinion polls that the games should not be staged this year, the extension could lead to fatigue.
Ichiro Masaki, 50, who works at a building maintenance company in Tokyo and bought tickets for the pentathlon and soccer, said he wasn’t sure if he could use the tickets next year. “Well, honestly, I’m not as excited as I was when I first got the tickets,” Masaki said. “If my work schedule allows, I will probably go to see the games, but I might just get a refund.”