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Opinion

Why the Tokyo Olympics must be canceled

It would be unsafe and unfair to proceed with the world's showcase sporting event

| Japan
Olympic rings installation at the Odaiba Marine Park, pictured on Jan. 16: the Olympics should be fair for every nation.   © Sipa/AP

Kosuke Takahashi is Tokyo correspondent for Janes Defence Weekly.

Despite declaring a state of emergency for the greater Tokyo area earlier this month, Japan is pushing ahead with plans to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

Even during an alarming spike in coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has reiterated his resolve, declaring on Jan. 4 that he intends "to make the Games proof that humanity has defeated the virus."

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who visited Japan in November 2020, has shown similar resolve, arguing that "these Olympic Games will be the light at the end of the tunnel." But can we really hold the Tokyo Olympics amid record coronavirus cases? Moreover, is it the right thing to host the Games during the pandemic, even if we can?

In my view, the main reasons why we must cancel the games are clear: the rapid spread of COVID-19, the limited global vaccine rollout, and the rising costs of hosting the Games themselves. As COVID case numbers continue to soar in Japan and elsewhere, the entire planet is either under lockdown or living with severe restrictions on movement. Many nations are enforcing strict entry bans on foreign nationals to contain the further spread of the coronavirus.

We should have much bigger things to worry about other than this summer's Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, such as how to prevent the highly contagious new variants discovered in the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, and now in Japan, from overwhelming hospitals.

As of Jan 20., COVID-19 has killed more than two million people worldwide, including more than 400,000 in the U.S., 90,000 in the U.K., 70,000 in France, 50,000 in Spain and 140,000 in Mexico. Meanwhile, about 4,500 have died in Japan, according to Worldometer.

Suga needs to be aware that the pandemic is not a problem confined to a faraway country like Afghanistan, but a nightmare gripping every corner of the globe. What is more, when it comes to the Olympics, few countries seem to be paying any real attention.

With the games set to begin in around 180 days, Suga still remains optimistic. The prime minister said at a press conference on Jan. 7 that vaccines are the key to making the world's premier sports event happen. "I want to start vaccinations in Japan by the end of February," he added. "If we take appropriate measures, I think the public feelings toward the Olympics will change."

But his optimism is not shared by many Japanese people, as the government will not be able to secure enough supplies to vaccinate its 126 million population until the end of June, just one month before the Tokyo Games are scheduled to start on July 23.

A countdown calendar shows 185 day to start Tokyo 2020 Olympics and 217 days for Paralympics on Jan. 19: Suga's optimism is not shared by many Japanese people.   © Reuters

With about 15,000 athletes and match officials -- as well as a large influx of foreign visitors -- expected to travel to Japan for the Olympics, Tokyo residents are worried about a further spike in infections. Japan is still ranked 147th out of 220 countries in terms of the number of tests per one million of population as of Jan. 20. The Tokyo Olympics could turn Japan into a world superspreader.

The issue of vaccine availability is not just Japan's problem, with so many athletes in so many countries unable to train and take part in qualifying competitions because of vaccine shortages. Even the U.S. is now unlikely to be able to vaccinate its 300 million people until after the middle of the year.

The Olympics should be fair for every nation. Privilege and wealth should not prevail, especially as the world faces its biggest crisis in decades.

The Japanese public does not want the games either, with more than 80% of respondents to a Kyodo News survey released on Jan. 11 saying the Olympics should be canceled or postponed, compared to 63% in December. Behind this declining support for the Olympics are the ever-increasing COVID cases and the games' skyrocketing price tag, which has now reached more than 3 trillion yen ($29 billion) -- the most expensive Summer Olympics in history.

Although the cost of cancellation would be astronomical, many are afraid of the even higher costs of implementing coronavirus countermeasures to make the games safe. Little known in the West is the fact that Japan has already allocated a staggering 307 trillion yen in coronavirus-related economic stimulus, about 60% of Japan's GDP and the highest among Group of Seven nations.

With Japan's government debt already at 266% of GDP, the highest in the world and twice that of the U.S., there should be a strict limit as to how much fiscal stimulus and extra costs to host the Games can be added to growing national budget deficits.

According to one official at the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games who spoke to me on condition of confidentiality, it has already become very difficult to cancel the Olympics because the committee has collected huge sponsorship fees from Toyota Motor and Coca-Cola among other major companies. Japan's Dentsu, the marketing agent for the Olympics, would also be strongly blamed in the event of a cancellation.

But, absent the consent of the taxpaying public, we must turn back now before making a bad situation worse.

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