FILE - People opposing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics set to open in July amid the COVID pandemic, march near Tokyo's National Stadium, in Tokyo, Japan, May 9, 2021.
FILE - People opposing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics set to open in July amid the COVID pandemic, march near Tokyo's National Stadium, in Tokyo, Japan, May 9, 2021.

Opinion polls have for months suggested most Japanese oppose holding the Olympics. Some medical experts warn the event could lead to coronavirus clusters or spread new variants.

But with only a month to go until the Olympic cauldron is lit in Tokyo, organizers remain confident they can safely hold the Games, thanks in part to pandemic precautions that will ensure this Summer Olympics are like no other in history. 

International spectators have already been banned from the Olympics, which start July 23. On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said it is “definitely” possible the competition will be held in completely empty venues, depending on Japan’s COVID-19 situation. 

According to athlete guidelines issued last week, hugs, handshakes, and high-fives are forbidden. Off the field, virtually any degree of spontaneity has been outlawed, as athletes and staff must submit a detailed daily activity plan, including visits only to approved destinations.  

A machine to check body temperature and hand sanitizers are placed at the doping control station of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Village in Tokyo, Japan, June 20, 2021.

“You must not walk around the city,” specifies one section of the guidelines. Violators may be subject to disqualification, fines, or even deportation, the rules stipulate. 

With such measures in place, public opposition toward the Games is softening. But it is still widespread, with many saying Japan should instead focus on its own tepid pandemic recovery.

Only about a third of Japanese support holding the Olympics, according to a poll released Monday by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Though that figure may seem low, it is up from just 14% who supported the Games last month. 

About 86% of Japanese are concerned about a resurgence in COVID-19 cases because of the Games, suggested a Kyodo News survey published Sunday. 

Vaccine woes 

Japan has seen a small number of coronavirus cases compared to many other countries, but its vaccination effort has been sluggish. Only around 6% of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated, one of the worst rates among wealthy countries.  

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike inspects a vaccination of COVID-19 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office in Tokyo as Tokyo Metropolitan Government started vaccination for the persons involved in the Olympic Games, June 18, 2021.

While vaccinations have picked up in recent weeks, that does little good for the tens of thousands of Tokyo 2020 volunteers still waiting to be inoculated.

One Olympics volunteer told VOA that if he does not get vaccinated soon, he may join the approximately 10,000 Tokyo 2020 volunteers who have already dropped out. 

“I’m very impatient,” said the volunteer, who did not want his name published because he is not authorized to speak with the media. He says unvaccinated volunteers feel unprepared to work with crowds. 

“Masks, disinfectant sprays, and leaflets distributed by the organizers to volunteers will not be enough to prevent infection when an infected person appears,” said the volunteer, whose job is to work with visiting media.  

Japanese officials say they are considering vaccinating all 70,000 unpaid Olympics volunteers. But they are running out of time to do so. 

Even so, Japanese officials insist the danger will be minimal. They say an estimated 80% of the athletes and other Olympics visitors will be vaccinated. 

That may not be good enough, considering Japan’s low overall vaccination rate, according to some medical experts. 

“There is a big problem here,” Norio Sugaya, infectious disease expert and doctor at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, told VOA. 

“It is extremely difficult to completely regulate the behavior of a total of 100,000 people, including athletes, officers, and media personnel,” Sugaya said.  

“I don’t think we should do something as risky as the Olympics at this time,” he adds.  

A journalist looks at cardboard beds, for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Villages, which are shown in a display room the Village Plaza, June 20, 2021, in Tokyo.

Pushing ahead

But Tokyo, which has spent billions of dollars in taxpayer money on the event, seems to believe moving ahead is the least bad option.

The Games, which were already delayed a year because of the pandemic, are the most expensive Summer Olympics on record

Thugh the spectator restrictions mean Tokyo will not recuperate its expenses via ticket revenue, there is still a massive amount of television revenue and other sponsorships at stake. 

“Japan’s obviously not going to pick up the tourist boom that a lot of people in the small and medium enterprise area were hoping for. But the corporate sponsors and advertisers could still make quite a bit of hay out of this with international coverage and domestic coverage,” says Corey Wallace, who teaches at Japan’s Kanagawa University.  

Last week, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said the Tokyo Games could be the most profitable Olympics in NBC history. During the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, NBC generated $1.6 billion in revenue.  

This long exposure photo shows streaks of lights from cars passing by a Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics sign on the side of a building, June 11, 2021, in Tokyo.

Political impact  

Japan’s government, whose approval ratings are only in the 30% range, also hopes to reap some political benefit from hosting a successful event.  

Prime Minister Suga’s government is planning to hold a lower house election once the Olympics finish, points out Wallace. 

“They will be hoping they get a little post-Olympics boost going into that election. But I think they will be unpleasantly surprised,” he predicts. 

Professor Kirsten Holmes of Australia’s Curtin University, who focuses on the sustainability of major international events like the Olympics, agrees that the pandemic has raised the cost for Tokyo in hosting the Games.  

“On the other hand, being able to deliver a safe Olympic Games at this time during the pandemic will be an enormous boost to both people living in Japan but also Japan’s future in terms of hosting other events going forward,” she said.