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A mistake of Olympic proportions in Tokyo

This article is over 2 years, 9 months old
The Tokyo Olympic Games is set to start this month. Sam Ord investigates the scale of the Covid health crisis ignored by officials, and the reality of how the event build profits and nationalism for rulers
Issue 2762
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics starting this month are about nationalism and profit, not health and people
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics starting this month are about nationalism and profit, not health and people

Over 11,000 athletes and 90,000 team members from 206 countries will descend on Tokyo, Japan for the 2020 Olympic Games, set to start on Friday 23 July. But despite public demands for their cancellation and an increase in Covid-19 cases, the games are unlikely to be postponed.

Officials know the current dangers. Japan’s Olympic chief Yasuhiro Yamashita said there was “no way” to ensure there were no positive virus cases among teams arriving for the Olympics.

Yamashita has unfortunately been proven right as two Ugandan Olympic team members tested positive for coronavirus while they were in Japan.

The first positive case was identified at Tokyo’s Narita airport which resulted in the official being quarantined. But the remaining team members were allowed to drive over 300 miles to their camp near Osaka. Three days later a second team member tested positive.

Currently only 12 percent of Japan’s 126 million population are fully vaccinated. And athletes will come from countries where vaccination has hardly begun.


Rob moved to Osaka in Japan from the United States 18 months ago. He told Socialist Worker, “Some people are worried about safety, and a lot of it is frustration about how sluggish the domestic vaccination program is.

“The government appears hellbent on having the Olympics, but it’s still in the process of vaccinating health workers and the elderly.

“It was literally just a few days ago when it started vaccinating people under 65, though it’s a little vague as to how to get this done. It claims everyone will be vaccinated by the end of September, but no one believes that.”

Many people believe that the government is pushing ahead with the games for reasons of national prestige, and to keep revenues flowing.

Rob added, “The people here did a very good job of handling Covid-19, distancing as much as possible, sanitation and nearly 100 percent mask use. The frustration now is that the government is fumbling on its side of the deal.”

Despite the Olympic safety restrictions, such as no spectators allowed in the stadiums, they’re still not enough to ensure people’s safety.

When asked if the government’s virus control measures are enough Lu, an activist based in Tokyo, told Socialist Worker, “The Olympics should be cancelled.

“It is not a ceremony that should be held when vaccines have not become widespread, and the spread of infection isn’t controlled.

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“The Japanese government seems to imitate Britain’s ‘national spirit’ when after the Second World War it held the 1948 Olympics. But no country has ever held the Olympics during the war itself.”

Lu spoke about the proportion of the elderly population in Japan and how people fear for their safety.

“The Japanese government attaches great importance to the economy, and the elderly are secondary,” they said. “The government tends to want younger people to recover the economy quickly.”

Protests have been building in response to the games, but due to people’s safety concerns, the majority of activism has been online.

More fuel has been added to the fire. John Coates, who sits on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said the Olympics would continue even if Tokyo was in a state of emergency.

Soto, also based in Tokyo, told Socialist Worker that opposition to the games is widespread.

Soto works in a school that has been forced to remain open. He said, “My colleagues feel the games should be cancelled, it could turn into a super spreader event or create a new variant.”

People aren’t just worried about the impact the virus will have in Tokyo. Many believe that the impact on some athletes from less developed and unprepared countries is more of a concern.

Soto added, “I do not believe a scaling down of the event will make it safe for international teams. The athletes will be going home after all and could spread it back when they get home.”

Lu agreed, saying, “The official participation method set by the IOC is ‘at your own risk’. I argue that this is irresponsible as a host country.”

The Japanese state has prioritised businesses and the economy over public health throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Leaders have been fearful of closing down hospitality businesses such as bars and restaurants and have gone no further than limiting opening hours.

But these mild restrictions have resulted in one of the highest death tolls in east Asia. Currently 14,730 people have died in Japan. This number is bound to increase during and after the Olympics.

In nearby Vietnam, with a population of close to 100 million, only 81 people have died.

Wealth not health

Despite Covid-19 safety restrictions limiting tourism and spectators, the Olympics is still a huge business.

The Tokyo Games will cost £11.17 billion of mostly public money and will provide multinational companies with a platform for advertising.

Some 83 partners and sponsors have rushed to spend a total of £940 million to paste their brand over the games.

Their aim is to cash in on the huge viewing figures. Over 3.6 billion people watched the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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Among the sponsors are Nintendo, AirBnB and Samsung. And they know that this can be a profitable boost for their products.

In the three months following the Coca-Cola sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics, sales rose by four percent.

One of the main reasons the games will go ahead is that the new prime minister Yoshihide Suga wants to present Japan as “open for business”.

Suga met with G7 leaders in Cornwall recently where trade deals and future international relationships were discussed.

Suga will be keen to develop these neoliberal relationships, regardless of the cost to health.

Fake unity flag waving only benefits the powerful

The Olympic committee settled on this year’s slogan, “United in Emotion.”

The games are a chance for the Japanese state to present a false idea of unity as countries emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

People will be invited to share in what is presented as a festival of international unity, a welcome distraction from the suffering of the last 16 months.

An athlete’s success and sporting behaviour will be advertised as a symbol of the good humans can achieve.

But the games will be used to intensify nationalism, not reduce it.

Virtually all broadcasters, news websites and mainstream politicians will encourage identification with “our” competitors and “our” teams.

It will attempt to bring whole countries together against others. Certain countries will be identified as particular rivals whose defeat or failure should be warmly welcomed.

Think how football matches between England and Germany are used by the media and politicians.

A tarnished brand that deserves no respect

The modern Olympics is an adaptation from the ancient Greek games. Their bloody reality has been erased.

Ancient Greece was often at war and the Olympics played into that. Many of the sports were based around combat fighting. Rulers were desperate to show they had the strongest, fastest warriors.

The modern Olympic Games were set up in 1894 by French nationalist Baron de Coubertin when he founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The first games under IOC control were held in Athens, Greece in 1896 and consisted of 241 athletes from 14 nations.

Many athletes called for Athens to continuously host the Olympics but, under the guise of internationalism, the host nation was rotated every four years. The IOC consisted of businessmen from various nations who held a financial interest.

Women at the 1900 Paris Olympics were allowed to compete in just two individual disciplines—tennis and golf. This meant only 2 percent of all the competitors were women.

The Olympics was commercialised from the beginning. Stock manufacturer Oxo sponsored the 1908 London Games and soft drink manufacturer Coca-Cola has been an Olympic sponsor since 1928.

At the same time the Games are used to build nationalism. In the wake of the First World War in 1920, the IOC banned Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire and allowed the games to be hosted by Belgium.

Workers outlined how the Olympics was an event for the elite, by the elite. The Socialist Workers’ Sport International built the International Workers’ Olympiads which ran from 1925 until the Second World War.

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The organisation was supported by left wing parties and several trade unions. They opposed the exclusion of women athletes as well as the racism and antisemitism present in the IOC. These games built upon the ideas of internationalism, friendship and solidarity as opposed to nationalist rivalries.

Germany was awarded the 1936 Olympics while Adolf Hitler was building his ideas of antisemitism and fascism. He held the games in a stadium draped with swastikas. Jewish athletes were banned from competing under the “Aryans only” policies.

Nazi Germany was the first to ceremonially light the Olympic torch. Hitler branded it a part of “Nordic ceremony” whilst stressing the superiority of white people. The tradition remains today.

Hitler wanted to prove the superiority of white people in sport, but this fell flat as black athletes from the US took home more medals than the entire German team.

There have been iconic examples of resistance. Many people opposed and boycotted Hitler’s Olympics, considering participation as an endorsement of his ideas.

In 1968 the Mexican police killed up to 300 demonstrators who protested less than two weeks before the opening ceremony. Notably medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith held the black power salute on the podium.

The connection that ordinary people have with sport can be exploited. It’s not uncommon for nations to use international sporting events to distract from injustices and crimes they’ve committed.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics led with the motto “A new world,” as £5.1 billion was invested into renovating and building stadiums.

But the games were used to distract from the fact they were built on the back of favelas being wiped out, forced evictions and 11 workers dying whilst constructing the stadiums.

Protests and riots developed in 2015 as people opposed forced evictions near the construction sites.

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