Tokyo 2020 Olympics And Paralympics: The Controversial Pandemic Games

One month has passed since Japan hosted the postponed 2020 summer Olympic Games in its capital city of Tokyo, and the Paralympic Games are just beginning. New headlines and controversies were constant throughout the games.

Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Olympic Games were a controversial topic for much of the world, especially for Japanese citizens. An uncontrolled global pandemic was one of the main factors behind disdain for the games, but other underlying factors like cost overruns, construction of new facilities, and environmental impacts contributed to many people viewing the Olympics differently than in the past. 

In the months prior to the games, the World Health Organization (WHO) showcased a high number of COVID-19 cases in Japan. The New York Times reports as many as 1,000 cases daily in Japan leading up to the games. Now, nearly a month later, cases have sharply increased to a daily average of nearly 22,000 cases. 

Japan declared the fourth state of emergency in Tokyo leading up to and throughout the games, causing the event to be closed to spectators. The state of emergency has been extended until mid-September in Tokyo and surrounding regions in an attempt to counter a spike in COVID-19 infections threatening the medical system, Reuters reported. The fourth state of emergency has called for tighter restrictions on businesses such as earlier closing hours, maximum occupancy limits, and some prohibited alcohol sales. 

Only 30 percent of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated as of August 3rd, according to BBC News. Their vaccine rollout was considerably slower than some other countries, despite the government’s insistence on hosting the games and the construction of the Olympic stadiums and infrastructure months prior. 

An IPSOS Global Advisor poll recorded data that stated 78 percent of Japanese citizens disagreed that the Olympics should continue because of the COVID-19 pandemic and thought that they should be postponed or abandoned altogether. 

Since the games began on July 23rd, Japan has recorded approximately 170,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 200 deaths. Now, Al Jazeera stated Japan’s total has crossed 1 million cases, with nearly 15,000 deaths. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide have denied links between the Olympics and Japan’s COVID-19 surge, there was an increase of 430 people that tested positive among Olympic staff, athletes, Japanese officials, and contractors during the games, Al Jazeera reports. Prime Minister Suga’s Cabinet approval ratings have fallen to a record low due to public discontent with the government’s response to the pandemic, according to The Japan Times. 

Leading up to and during the Olympic Games, Japanese citizens protested against hosting the games due to the fear of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Protests could be seen in front of government office buildings, on the colourful streets of Tokyo and near the Olympic facilities with large banners calling for the cancellation of the Olympics. This was the first Olympics to be held mostly without spectators, and this led citizens to wonder who the games were for. “A lot of people’s tax money is going to hold these Olympics,” Maya Yoshida, the captain of Japan’s men’s soccer team, told NPR. “Despite that, people can’t go and watch. So you wonder about who the Olympics is for, and what it is for.” 

The Olympic budget was $30 billion, with taxpayers paying for half of this, according to Al Jazeera and NPR. AP News states that the initial budget was meant to be $7.3 billion, causing the International Olympic Committee to face criticism for the rising costs. The budget came in the form of new facilities like housing apartments, sporting arenas, and tracks, as well as exercise areas and equipment. Areas of Tokyo were sealed off to the public, and athletes required police escorts to reach their facilities due to protestors. This demonstrates that citizen discontent with the games was high. 

The construction of the National Stadium also came at the cost of evicting approximately 200 families, a majority of which were elderly. Kohei Jinno was evicted from his home twice, once for the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, and once again for the 2020 Olympic Games. According to Reuters, Jinno lived in this neighbourhood for over half a century, and was saddened and lonely to leave the community he and his wife were part of. People evicted from their homes for stadium reconstruction were not given much choice by the government and only compensated 170,000¥ ($1,500). 

Along with families displaced by the games, the environment and sustainability are other factors that have people questioning if the games stand for their motto, “United by Emotion.” Many aspects of the Olympic Games serve the notion of having sustainable practices to promote eco-friendly games. The Tokyo Olympic medals were made out of precious metals from used electronics, athletes slept on cardboard beds and podiums were made out of recycled plastic, among other things. Some congratulate this, while others criticize these decisions on the part of the IOC to “greenwash” the event. Sven Daniel Wolfe, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, co-authored a recent study on the sustainability of the Olympics. He measured this through economic efficiency, ecological impact, and social justice. The study showed that sustainability efforts tend to take a backseat to promoting corporate profits and putting on impressive spectacles. 

The Olympic Games contribute to producing harmful gas emissions, including flying in thousands of athletes from around the world, which calls for extra energy usage. Not to mention, the carbon footprint of constructing new facilities like housing and arenas that displace citizens has a hand in degrading the environment. These facilities also require significant reconfiguration to be used under normal circumstances, deeming some one-time use facilities. 

The IOC defends that they used carbon credits from companies, making this the “first-ever carbon-negative Olympics,” but there is little support to show that planting trees in other parts of the world can completely offset carbon emissions. In fact, tropical plywood from the forests of Indonesia, where deforestation is a serious problem, was one of the materials used to construct the stadiums that no one sat in, according to NPR. The Columbia Climate School called into question the lasting impacts of the games on the areas that host them. Many environmental regulations are terminated after the games, showing what little impact the games have really achieved in terms of sustainability. 

Overall, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics may have brought more problems to light than they did to unite the world. Many athletes served their countries, communities, and identities through their athletic prowess. People were able to watch as some made history as athletes or showed the extent to which they could handle pressure as human beings. The Olympics as an organization and brand needs to do more to address the problems within itself, and the problems it creates. Before the games began this year, they were already shrouded in controversy and uncertainty in a time where much of the world was in isolation. After a year of dealing with a global pandemic, it was a scary and uncertain time for the world to compete. Now, Japan is left to deal with a high surge of COVID-19 cases, leaving its medical systems to cope with an overload of cases. 

While a majority of Japanese citizens shared their wish not to continue with the games, the government pushed on. Citizens’ taxes contributed to games they were unable to attend, and some had lost their homes to accommodate Olympic infrastructure that may only be used once. The environment and sustainability of hosting such an event seemed to be glossed over through the use of “eco-friendly” aspects, despite the overwhelming natural disaster events that occurred throughout the year. The Olympic Games are meant to signify a time of unity where athletes from all around the world represent their country, but under the circumstances, people have begun to reconsider what “unity” truly means to big corporations and the countries they control.

Jadenne Radoc Cabahug


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