• Gaurav Bagur

A Return to Normalcy or Controversy? The 2021 Tokyo Olympics

At first glance, the pomp and spectacle of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics mark a turning point after a turbulent year. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the prestigious international sporting conference was rescheduled for 2021, from July 23 to August 8. Japan previously hosted the Olympics in 1964—a mere 19 years after Tokyo was razed to the ground in World War II. The parallels between then and now are striking. The Olympic Games have once again been cast as a return to normalcy following an international crisis.


However, a quick look beneath the surface reveals that these Games are anything but normal. The troubles began as far back as 2015, with accusations of plagiarism over the games’ logo and a public squabble over a $2 billion stadium between the organizers and the stadium’s architects. Other controversies include a spat over a satirical cartoon, and several sexist gaffes by members of the organizing committee. Moreover, beyond issues of individual misconduct, there’s plenty of deeper political drama underpinning the Tokyo Games.

To start with, the IOC’s controversial policy towards political statements has drawn objections in international circles. The Rule 50 Guidelines for the Olympics, disseminated in Jan 2020, explicitly ban political gestures and demonstrations at all venues. This would prohibit actions such as kneeling on the field or displaying a flag while on the field, in the Olympic Village, and during ceremonies. The guidelines justify this policy as necessary to facilitate the political neutrality of sports and to advance a message of international unity.


However, political scientist Jules Boykoff, a former athlete, argues that this principle undermines athletes’ freedom of expression and prevents them from drawing attention to inequality and injustice. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against racism, for instance, drew attention precisely because it was able to disrupt the perceived neutrality of American football. There are also many historical examples of how politics and the Olympics are intertwined. Most famously, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two black American athletes—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—raised their fists in a symbolic protest against racism and in support of the Civil Rights Movement.


The IOC’s statements about political neutrality were further contradicted by their stance on the presence of the rising sun flag. The flag, an infamous symbol of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, is frequently associated with the atrocities committed by the Japanese military. It’s especially offensive to the people of China and South Korea, although the Japanese people themselves are divided on the matter. The South Korean Sports Ministry asked the IOC to ban its display at the Tokyo Olympics, likening it to the Nazi’s use of the swastika. In response, the Tokyo organizing committee said that the display of the rising sun flag was not a political statement.


In spite of these controversies around political speech, the Japanese government has remained firm in their push to ensure that the Games occur as planned in 2021. The motivation behind this determination is crystal clear. By hosting the first post-pandemic Olympics, Japan could claim credit on the international stage as a success story in COVID management.

However, Japan’s efforts to make this success story a reality might also be threatened by internal political strife. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, of the Liberal Democratic Party, is facing the prospect of reelection later this year. Following the resignation of long-serving ex-PM Abe Shinzo, Suga assumed leadership of the conservative-nationalist LDP in September 2020, aided by other party insiders and bolstered by his reputation as a technocrat. Once elected party president, the LDP’s control over the Japanese parliament allowed Suga to easily step in and complete Abe’s term as PM.


The new Prime Minister is fighting an uphill battle, as he contends with the widespread accusations that the government has failed to contain COVID-19 effectively. The government has been criticized for failing to declare a state of emergency in time, and for unclear communication around restriction of movement. Doctors and public health experts raised concerns about insufficient testing, and the business sector complained that the economic stimulus packages were “too little, too late”.


While Suga rose to power with a 74% approval rating, this proved to be short-lived due to further policy failures. Japan’s vaccine deployment has been slow: less than 2% of the population has received their first shot, much less than the US or Germany. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine remains the only one approved, and the European Union’s export controls have created a bottleneck for procurement. The government has also been seen as acting prematurely in lifting the state of emergency, in their haste to produce the appearance of safety.

The fact remains that most Japanese are not confident in the ability of the government to ensure public health and safety if the Olympics are held. A survey by Kyodo News, conducted in January 2021, found that around half of the respondents believed that the Games should be postponed again, with another third supporting outright cancellation. Some have even taken to the streets, organizing anti-Olympic protests.


The other piece of the government’s success story regards Fukushima. In 2011, an accident at a Fukushima nuclear power plant, caused by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, resulted in the evacuation of over 150,000 residents. It was the most severe nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. The Tokyo Olympics have been dubbed the Reconstruction Games, ostensibly in recognition of the economic recovery of the former accident zone. However, there is still skepticism that any celebration is appropriate, as many remain unable to return to their homes even ten years down the line.


As the government faces strong incentives to go full steam ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, it seems more likely that the Reconstruction themes are an exercise in optics to manufacture support in the face of public disaffection. Not only are the gains in soft power alluring, as discussed above, but the Games could stimulate spending and herald foreign investment. If he is able to claim credit for setting Japan on the road to recovery, Suga can ignore criticism of the government’s economic programs and its incompetent handling of the pandemic. Reelection would become an inevitability.


In looking at Japan’s effort to build this success narrative, there is also a geopolitical analysis to be considered. Japan’s regional rival, China, is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. If Tokyo fails, Beijing could usurp the ‘COVID comeback’ narrative, a prospect that would amount to a humiliating loss of face for Japan. At the same time, while some domestic factions are hawkish on China, Suga has the backing of China-friendly LDP veteran Nikai Toshihiro, and the two countries are major trading partners. The simmering tension between China and Japan’s Western allies like the US and Australia, and the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Games over China’s human rights record, make Japan’s relations with China even more precarious. While the direct impact of these dynamics on Tokyo 2020 is nebulous, one thing is certain: this quagmire of competing international interests challenges the idea that any Olympics can be an entirely unifying event divorced from international issues.


Asō Tarō, the deputy Prime Minister of Japan, described the Tokyo Olympics as “cursed”, referencing a theory that the Olympics are struck by misfortune every forty years. Though the existence of an Olympic curse is dubious, the animosity surrounding this latest iteration of the Games is entirely real.