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Going ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to open on July 23, reflects not so much a decision as the lack of one.    © Illustration by Hiroko Oshima
The Big Story

Athletes upstaged by political drama as Japan's COVID Olympics open

Strict regime of isolation, masks and testing has not prevented outbreaks

FRANCESCA REGALADO and RURIKA IMAHASHI, Nikkei staff writers | Japan

TOKYO -- A two-decade career and five years of waiting will all come down to one day for Hidilyn Diaz.

The 30-year-old weightlifter, who won the Philippines' only Olympic medal at the last Summer Games in Rio, was looking to upgrade her silver to gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games, winning a first-ever gold for her homeland. But in March last year, when the Japanese prime minister announced the Games would be postponed, Diaz was devastated.

"She cried," Julius Naranjo, her conditioning coach and partner, told Nikkei Asia on behalf of Diaz, who took a media break in the weeks before the Games. "It's been a tough four years. We had to overcome a lot to get to where we are."

Diaz's financial situation was so untenable in June 2019 that she took to social media to appeal for private sponsorship. "I'm having a hard time," she wrote in Filipino on Instagram. "I'm embarrassed to ask, but I'll be shameless for my dream for our country to take home the gold medal in the Olympics."

She received 2 million pesos ($39,900) from the Philippine Sports Commission shortly after the Instagram post. The Southeast Asian country is fielding only 19 athletes, including Diaz and golfer Yuka Saso, the reigning U.S. Women's Open champion.

A private foundation donated another 1.5 million pesos to Diaz's fourth Olympic effort last summer, enabling her to move her training base from Kuala Lumpur to an isolated area of Melaka when COVID-19 infections climbed in the Malaysian capital. The rest barely covered weightlifting equipment rentals, two coaches, a nutritionist and a psychologist.

Hidilyn Diaz trains in her makeshift home gym in Malacca, Malaysia. The 30-year-old weightlifter was looking to upgrade her silver to gold at the Tokyo 2020 Games, which would be the first for her homeland. (Photo courtesy of Hidilyn Diaz)

But Diaz has faced an extra layer of suspense, in addition to her hand-to-mouth training operation. Every training day for the past year and a half, she has pushed herself to the physical limit, not knowing for sure whether the Games would be held at all. While she and her team struggle to finance her training and protect her from the coronavirus, Japan's government has been debating the wisdom of hosting an Olympics that could easily become a superspreader event.

The fact that the Games are now taking place reflect not so much a decision by the government as the lack of one. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has sought to wash his hands of responsibility. "I am not the organizer" he has repeatedly said. Politicians in Tokyo, including Suga and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, have also insisted, less and less credibly, that the Games would be a symbol of humanity's victory over COVID-19.

Holding the Games, Suga said in June, would "send a message of hope and courage."

But a skeptical Japanese public does not see things the same way, with Tokyo plunged into its third state of emergency this year, they are frustrated by closed bars and limited travel, and scared by reports of overrun hospital wards.

Eighty two percent of those surveyed by Nikkei in February were in favor of delaying or canceling the Games, in the midst of a third infection surge. A more recent poll showed 41% of Japanese said they think the Games should be canceled, according to a Yomiuri News poll on July 12. They were angered by a new state of emergency and unswayed by organizers' July 8 decision to ban spectators.

"Everything that the government does is for the Olympics," complained an 83-year-old retired resident of Tokyo. "It's contradictory that the government declares a state of emergency while hosting the Games. As long as the Games are held, people won't listen to any requests from the authorities."

Already top sponsors are heeding the public's wrath. On July 19, Toyota said it would not air TV ads it had scheduled and said its officials will not attend the opening ceremony or other events, despite the automaker being a top-tier sponsor.

The backlash has even reached the athletes. In May, swimmer Rikako Ikee, who recovered from leukemia in time to qualify for the Tokyo Games, responded to social media comments pressuring her to withdraw from the Olympics.

Rikako Ikee reacts after winning the women's 100-meter butterfly final at the national swimming championships and booking her Olympic spot in the women's 4x100 medley relay on April 4 in Tokyo. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

"Ms. Ikee, could you withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics and call for the cancellation of the Games? We need influential athletes like you to raise your voice," said an anonymous Twitter user in early May in a post directed to Ikee.

"I realize that not everyone may necessarily have a positive view, but there are many people who get courage from watching athletes. It's a tough time right now, but I want to spread the power of sports," Ikee said in an interview with broadcaster NHK in April.

Japan's first woman competing in Olympic boxing said she felt similar pressure. "The fact that the Olympics will be held despite the burden on the medical system has stuck in the back of my mind," said Sena Irie, 20.

"I've been thinking that I cannot say lightly that I want to compete at the Olympics," Irie told Nikkei. "Because of someone's sacrifice, we can compete at the Games."

Regime change?

Indeed, such is the furor that the athletes arriving this month for the Tokyo Games -- normally the focus of any Olympics -- have been largely ignored in favor of the political drama enveloping Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Suga's public approval has dropped from 74% when he was installed as leader last September to 33% in July. Thirty percent is considered the danger zone by political strategists, the point at which it often becomes difficult for the party leader to keep his post. Even worse, Suga must call a general election by October.

"We are seeing a huge opportunity for a regime change," said Yukio Edano, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the country's largest opposition party, which has 154 seats in the Diet. Suga often dodges questions about the coming general election by saying the coronavirus is his "top priority" for now.

People commute to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building on July 16, after the Japanese capital plunged into a fourth state of emergency on July 12. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

In another ominous development for Suga, the LDP failed to win a majority in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly earlier this month.

"I'm fed up with Suga's wishy-washy attitude. He cannot be relied on," said a female Tokyo resident, Tamae Tsuchiya. Another resident, an 83-year-old retiree and longtime LDP voter, said he may not vote for the party in the fall. "I had been rooting for the LDP, and always voted for the party, but doubt has been growing recently inside me toward them," he told Nikkei.

Suga's strategy in seeking to shed responsibility for the Games has been, in turn, to point the finger at the International Olympic Committee, which manages the event. Japan could potentially owe billions of dollars to broadcasters and the IOC if the Games are not held, and that has fed the domestic perception that they are a foreign imposition, going ahead despite domestic protests in response to international pressure and fear of financial penalties.

Women walk near an Olympic rings sculpture in Tokyo on July 14. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

"No matter how hard we call for cancellation, it will be in vain," Kimiko Suzuki, a 72-year-old Tokyo resident, said. "We cannot actually do anything if even the prime minister does not have the authority to cancel the Games."

That narrative has been obligingly backed up by the IOC's leadership. In January, IOC President Thomas Bach was mocked on social media for asking the Japanese people for "patience and understanding" as Olympic organizers put off deciding COVID-19 containment measures. Bach's lieutenant, John Coates, caused a stir in May when he said the Games would proceed even if Tokyo remained under a state of emergency -- a prediction that has come true.

"We have seen how privileged the IOC executives are," said a 70-year-old man who is waiting to be reimbursed for his Olympic tickets following the decision to ban spectators.

People protest the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo on July 16. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Bach himself has gained notoriety in Japan, with protesters tailing him as he visited sites in Tokyo and Hiroshima. The IOC, which has sole authority to cancel the Games according to the host city contract, needs the proceeds from broadcast fees to finance sport around the world, leaving little to help Japan's struggling organizing committee with postponement costs.

"The IOC doesn't have any other revenue sources. They don't have anywhere else to get this money from," said Victor Matheson, sports economist at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Morinari Watanabe, an IOC member and president of the International Gymnastics Federation who was also put in charge of the Olympics boxing task force, said sports federation chiefs appreciated Japan's willingness to proceed.

"We are willing to comply with the rules. Strict rules mean nothing to us when we think about the despair we felt last year," Watanabe told Nikkei.

Deflecting anger

To assuage public fear of a larger Olympic outbreak, 2020 Tokyo Games organizers have pointed to stringent rules for athletes and other visitors. Although vaccinations were not required, Bach has said 85% of athletes and Olympic officials had been inoculated, as well as 70% to 80% of media representatives.

Athletes from Italy arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on July 16. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

A draconian regime of testing and isolation is designed to ensure the Games are COVID-19 free. Upon arrival, athletes are subjected to airport testing and a 14-day quarantine. In theory, Olympic visitors will be isolated in Harumi, Odaiba and Ariake, the man-made islands in Tokyo Bay that host the athletes' village and most competition venues. They will be banned from using public transportation, tested daily and immediately isolated in case they or close contacts are infected. Athletes will be required to wear masks except when eating, sleeping, and competing. The medal ceremonies will be a lot quieter without spectators. Medalists will have to wear masks on the podium and take their medals from a tray. No group photos of the winners will be taken.

"To be honest, I wanted to compete in a more festive atmosphere with spectators," said boxer Irie. "Many athletes bet their lives on the Olympics, so I continue taking preventive measures not to infect and not to be infected."

The host of precautions, however, has failed to prevent outbreaks: the first infections -- two South African football players tested positive -- were reported in the Olympic Village over the weekend and as of July 20, 68 COVID-19 cases are connected with the Olympics. Bach, the IOC president, seemed overconfident to many last week when he said that there was "zero" risk that visiting athletes would pass infections into the general Japanese population.

Since February, so-called playbooks for athletes, Games officials, sponsors and international media were thrice issued by the organizers. Each version contained more detail about an Olympic bubble that would separate visitors from the Japanese public, and how organizers would manage the flow of athletes in the Olympic Village to prevent cross-infection.

For athletes like Hidilyn Diaz, the Olympics are the end of a grueling and suspenseful journey, on top of their brutal training regimens. An intervention from the Philippine Embassy to the Malaysian government secured AstraZeneca doses for Diaz and her coaches in June, but they traveled in April to Uzbekistan for an Olympic qualifying event without the security of a vaccine.

"You can follow protocols but not everyone else will," Naranjo, her coach, said about the anxiety they felt. "We're on a bus full of people and there are athletes who don't wear masks. That bothered and scared us."

Still, a Yomiuri Shimbun news poll in June found that 63% of Japanese still felt the organizers' precautions were insufficient. Every measure announced was met by criticism, particularly when they asked private hospitals to reserve beds for infected and injured athletes, called for 500 nurses to volunteer for the Games and pushed athletes to the front of the vaccination line.

An ally with outdoor restaurants in Tokyo's Asakusa district. Restaurants and bars have been discouraged from serving alcohol since January. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

The final straw came in June when Japanese media reported that organizers were considering selling alcohol in Olympic venues. Restaurants and bars have been discouraged from serving liquor since January.

The organizing committee later announced that alcohol would also be banned at the Games. The decision was encouraged by Asahi Breweries, the official beverage sponsor, in an effort to deflect public anger toward the brand.

Bread and Circuses

LDP leaders are hoping that the pageantry of the Games -- albeit without spectators -- can assuage some of the public anger. The LDP, for example, has been putting pressure on the home team to rack up Japan's medal count, hoping public opinion will be swayed by the drama and pomp of the Games.

"Without the Games, there will be no chance for the government to clear its name," said Taisuke Matsumoto, an associate professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an attorney specializing in international sporting event contracts. "If Japan canceled the Games, the government would be criticized that the decision was too late. The world will point out Japan's political mistake of slow vaccination." Japan's vaccine rollout has lagged behind the other Group of Seven advanced economies, fully inoculating only 12.9% of adults by mid-July.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference on July 8. The government decided to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo, almost two weeks before the start of the 2020 Olympics. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

Seen as a trustworthy and steady hand, Suga swept into power with a 74% public approval rating. That dropped to 42% by December as new infections climbed to over 3,000 per day. But wary of casting doubt on the Olympics, Suga put off declaring a second state of emergency until the new year.

Those restrictions were lifted in March, as 2020 Tokyo Games organizers sought to revive excitement for the Japan leg of the Olympic torch relay. In the week after the relay began, Japan's daily new infections rose back to 2,000. Suga held out for nearly a month, then conceded to a new state of emergency at the end of April.

Then, in June, three weeks after the last state of emergency ended, Suga was forced to declare another -- the third this year and the fourth since the crisis began -- in Tokyo as the delta variant spread. "Tokyo's rise in infections could spread nationwide," he said.

But public willingness to comply with the on-and-off COVID-19 restrictions faded, especially as special entry channels were created for Olympic athletes and officials while Japan's borders remained closed.

Michiko Saito felt desolate after the last-minute ban on spectators wasted 30 months of preparation. "I wish they would have made this decision much earlier," lamented Saito, director of a volunteer tour guide organization in Fukushima Prefecture, which will host Olympic softball and baseball games.

"What and who are the Games for?" Saito asked. "It's the sponsors who will benefit from the Games if the Games succeed, and if the Games fail it is us taxpayers who bear the cost."

What if

The Tokyo Games' 68 domestic corporate sponsors would beg to differ. With the last-minute decision to ban all spectators, foreign and Japanese, from Olympic venues, their chances of recouping a $3 billion investment further dwindled.

Nor can the Japanese economy record any gains from this Olympic year, despite an investment drive in past years as Tokyo rushed to build stadiums and refurbish train stations and airports. The official price tag for the Games is $15.4 billion.

Aerial view of Olympic Stadium in Tokyo: The Games are not expected to boost the economy this year despite an earlier investment drive as Tokyo rushed to build stadiums (Photo by Kei Higuchi)

An analysis of past host countries in 2015 found that the Games' positive impact on real gross domestic product -- owing to increased tourism, consumption and construction -- did not fall and even persists after the Olympic year. Based on this, the Bank of Japan estimated in 2016 that the Olympics would contribute 4.5 trillion yen, boosting Japan's economic heft to 8 trillion yen in 2020.

Economists project modest growth for Japan's third-quarter GDP -- nothing to do with the Olympics, but because they expect the LDP to approve another round of fiscal stimulus before the fall election.

A journalist from Hong Kong takes a video of an Olympic rings sculpture in Tokyo on July 16. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Regardless of domestic politics, international goodwill is in store for Japan if it pulls off the Olympics, most of all from the athletes.

"We are very appreciative of being able to come to Japan early, and want to make sure we can do absolutely everything we can to protect the Japanese people," Deidre Anderson, athlete well-being manager for Australia's softball team, told Nikkei. They were the first team to arrive in Japan for the Olympics, isolated in a hotel in northwestern Gunma Prefecture for a month and a half before their first official game.

Australia counts among the few well-funded national Olympic committees able to afford dedicated quarantine measures for their athletes. Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, a half-hour drive from the Olympic Village, will host a training facility for Team USA. To protect athletes from infection in the village gym, the Australian Olympic Committee set up a gym in the basement of their Tokyo headquarters.

Many countries, including India and Iran, also pushed their Olympic-bound athletes to the front of the vaccination line. In an effort to even the field of play, the IOC secured Pfizer doses for athletes who could not be inoculated in their home countries.

But a lingering question still has athletes on edge: What if they test positive in the middle of competition?

"If we test positive, I don't know what Tokyo's going to do, or if they're going to bar us from competition," said Naranjo, Hidilyn Diaz's coach.

Bach has said infected individuals will be "immediately isolated." 2020 Tokyo Games organizers and the national committees are taking pains to protect athletes from cross-infection, with Australia asking athletes to "grab and go" when visiting the village dining hall.

Athletes are discouraged from mingling with other teams, banned from consuming alcohol and encouraged to take Tokyo 2020-branded condoms home as souvenirs instead of using them in the village. They will compete at the pinnacle of their sport without their families and play in empty stadiums.

Chelsea Forkin and Leigh Godfrey will compete for Australia in softball at the 2020 Olympics. (Photo courtesy of  Softball Australia)

"Being in the Olympics overrides no crowds," said Australian softball player Leigh Godfrey. Softball had been off the Olympic program since 2008, then reinstated for the 2020 Games.

"It's been a big goal for us for many, many years. It would be a really nice way to cap off an amazing sporting career," said Chelsea Forkin, Godfrey's teammate.

A few teammates had planned to retire after the Games in 2020, with one ultimately deciding not to go to Tokyo this year.

"Most of the players have careers and their employers had given them time to prepare for the Olympics," said Anderson of Softball Australia. "They had to request for more time off this year. Players with young families had to reassess."

Diaz, the Filipino weightlifter, plans to finally pursue a college degree after she retires.

"Imagine, for someone like her, you give your life to this sport, to your country. Sometimes they want to live a normal life," said her coach Naranjo.

Naranjo is confident that Diaz, who finished fourth in the April qualifier, will win a medal at her fourth -- and possibly final -- Olympics. To get to the top of the podium, she will have to overcome not only the pressure of her country's expectations, but also four years of financial uncertainty and a year of pandemic anxiety.

"When you're an elite athlete, you're not supposed to be thinking about anything else, just training," he said. "But she's putting the weight of the country on her shoulders."


Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Sena Irie's age. She is 20 years old, not 21.

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