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Tokyo Olympics 2020 Postponed

24 Jul 2020
By Jeff Kingston
A poster advertising Tokyo's candidacy to host the 2020 Olympic Games, now postponed. Source: Danny Choo

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed until next July, but they may not be held at all. Given the current pandemic malaise, Olympic hoopla could be just what the world needs, but the exorbitant cost of postponing the games has tempered enthusiasm in Japan.

Today, Tokyo was supposed to be celebrating the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed those plans, and now the games are postponed until July 2021.  Increasingly, that scenario looks like wishful thinking. Much depends on how the pandemic is managed globally. If indeed the games are held in 2021, they will herald a “new normal” in the world of international mega-events ranging from sports to expos.

On March 24, 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese organisers announced a one-year delay, apparently hopeful that the global pandemic would abate and that a vaccine would become available. Postponement was also more palatable to the sponsors and broadcasters that have paid a lot of money to secure rights to the games. NBC paid $1.4 billion for US broadcast rights alone. The IOC gets about 75 percent of its revenues from global broadcasting rights, so it has a strong interest in not cancelling the games.  For the athletes, the delay may be frustrating, but at least their Olympic dreams remain alive, if only just. Sports federations around the globe face steep losses since they depend on Olympic revenues, while the International Paralympic Committee is also reporting cash flow problems. For hotels, restaurants, and a vast range of businesses that had planned on an Olympic tourism boost, the postponement and subsequent travel bans have been a disaster. Among the disappointed, count an estimated 80,000 local volunteers and some 900,000 spectators per day who await clarification about their fates.

Officially, Tokyo spent some US$12.6 billion to prepare Olympic venues and related infrastructure, although actual outlays are probably double that figure, illustrating how high the stakes are. The 2013 bid originally pegged costs at $7.3 billion. There are concerns about the ballooning costs of the games as postponement adds to the tab. The IOC has promised only $650 million, out of its $2 billion reserve fund, towards the added expenses that might reach an estimated $2 billion to $6 billion. But cancellation will also be costly, as writing the games off entirely would mean an Olympic-sized black hole of some $40 billion.

Most Japanese people don’t seem to be too bothered about the postponement of the Olympics, and many believe that the games will end up scrapped because the risks of COVID-19 transmission will remain too high. Kyodo News released a poll of Tokyo residents in early July revealing limited enthusiasm. Around 46 percent said the games should proceed as rescheduled, while 52 percent favor further postponement or cancellation because they are not confident the games can be hosted safely. The fact that 27.7 percent of Tokyo residents favor cancellation of the 2020 Olympics altogether, and 24 percent want them postponed to 2022 or beyond, suggests that public support is tepid.

If the games are held, 31 percent favour a simplified version of the games, but what that actually entails is uncertain as there have been numerous proposals and few details. It seems safe to say that simplified will mean no frills and the exclusion of most, if not all, spectators from events, but other details are still being worked out. Given the exorbitant costs of postponement and spending on virus countermeasures, the Tokyo government will need more financial assistance than the IOC or national government seem prepared to offer; it has already spent $5.6 billion out of its $5.9 billion Olympic budget.

On July 5, Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko won reelection in a landslide, gaining over 3.5 million votes, rewarding her for the way she responded to the COVID-19 outbreak. Her frequent press conferences about the pandemic garnered extensive media attention, and her message of stay home and shutdown went down well. She maintains that the games will go on, but public sentiments are not in favor of these plans. An NHK poll released on election day indicated that 36 percent of voters favor scrapping the games, while only 27 percent think they should proceed.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo secured the 2020 Games back in 2013, appealing to global sympathies regarding the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters by dubbing them “the Reconstruction Olympics.” In the end, the affected region has not benefitted much from the Olympic outlays, and locals complain that their needs have been neglected by resources being diverted to building facilities in Tokyo. Subsequently, the games were rebranded as “the Diversity Olympics” as a chance to boost tolerance for diversity in Japan, an inspiring goal that is now on hold.

Perhaps, if the games are actually held, they might be remembered as “the Risky Olympics.”  There are strong doubts about the prospects of actually staging Tokyo 2020 in 2021 because a vaccine might not be ready at all. If it is, there may be insufficient supplies to conduct a global vaccination program. Moreover, even if a vaccine does boost immunity to COVID-19, this means people will be “immune-ish,” not immune. Gathering 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from all over the world, in addition to their staff and journalists, while the pandemic lingers could turn out to be a public health nightmare and will certainly present a range of challenges, including preparation of massive testing and quarantine facilities.

What we do know for certain is that the Olympic torch remains in Tokyo with plans for a relay next April. Organisers have also secured the rights to use almost all the venues a year hence. Moreover, the name Tokyo 2020 has been retained, if only to not add the costs of replacing all the banners, posters, and unsold swag. But pandemic-affected Japan is a changed society, where norms, lifestyles, and priorities are being reconsidered. There is a palpable sense of malaise. Boosters may argue that a bit of Olympic hoopla is just what the patient needs, but the public seems underwhelmed by the planned extravaganza – not keen to squander even more taxpayer money, and ready to pull the plug.

Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. He is author and editor of a dozen books, including Press Freedom in Japan (Routledge 2017), Japan (Polity 2019) and the Politics of Religion, Nationalism and Identity in Asia (Rowman & Littlefield 2019). He edited a two-part collection of essays titled “The Tokyo Olympics Past and Present” earlier this year for the Asia Pacific Journal Japan Focus, which can be viewed at  and

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.