The quantum mystery of Tokyo’s on-off Olympics


Last week, at a breakfast with the former president of one of Japan’s biggest companies, the now obligatory will-they-won’t-they Tokyo 2020 Olympics debate began before either of us had taken off our coats. Despite his connections, his former company being a sponsor and his own passion for sport, he still couldn’t say for sure whether the games would happen. Best to think of them, he said, as Schrödinger’s Olympics. As with the Austrian physicist’s hypothetical cat, the Olympics are both dead and alive in a box that nobody wants to open.

Like so much else, Tokyo’s Olympic and Paralympic Games owe their unknowable state to Covid-19, the crisis that forced their postponement this year. Last week, the US Olympic Committee declared it would not sanction athletes who make peaceful protest, such as by taking a knee, without it being clear if Japan will allow fully the live audiences that might see them do so.

On balance some sort of games seems likely. But while there have been resolute words from prime minister Yoshihide Suga and the Tokyo organisers, inspections by Olympic VIPs from Lausanne, new estimates of the rescheduling costs, and even a leaked plan to thin crowds at the opening torch relay, there is still no official confirmation that everything is going ahead. 

Nor, though, is there any confirmation that they are not. Declaring them definitely happening raises logistical and epidemiological questions that seem impossible to submit to sceptical public scrutiny, even with a working vaccine. Tokyo also knows that cancelling them now, particularly with Beijing itching to show it can host the 2022 winter games, would reverberate beyond sport. It would be a global statement of despair with a Japanese flag on top. 

The go/no-go Tokyo Olympics question — which ranges from how much Japanese immigration should open to visitors, to whether cheering can be allowed at outdoor events — now vies with the weather as a conversational standard. Many of my friends and I, who hold tickets to Schrödinger’s Olympics, began the year puffed with excitement and we can still imagine some of that spirit being recaptured however constrained the events may be. 

Even so, these Olympics always played negatively in local opinion polls and there is doubt over their real value. The Japanese public’s generally nervous behaviour around Covid-19, said my breakfast companion, suggests it is not about to become relaxed about throwing open its doors in coming months. The delay has also honed complaints normally blunted by the games’ nomadic cycle. A big dollop of pre-games hype is fine, but no Olympics is flattered by an extra year of scrutiny. 

The delay has intensified the bite of two issues. The most obvious is the financial burden borne by the public purse. Even before the additional $2.8bn expense of restaging the games next year, the whole thing was officially going to cost $12.6bn. But the real cost, according to an estimate by the Japanese government’s own auditors, would likely be twice that, making these the most expensive summer games ever staged. If you include the rescheduling costs, the total bill could reach $30bn — roughly the same as Estonia’s gross domestic product and a figure used by detractors to put price tags on each shot putted or javelin hurled.

The other difficult issue revolves around how Tokyo originally secured the right to host the Olympics and whether certain payments and expenses fell within IOC rules. Such questions are part of a broader investigation by French prosecutors into corruption around this games’ bidding process. Under continuing investigation is Tsunekazu Takeda, the former president of the Japan Olympic Committee, who denies wrongdoing but abruptly resigned last year ahead of what should have been his greatest triumph.

Usually, the financial burden and darker side of the Olympics are disguised by the euphoria that comes with the success of any grand-scale national project and the immediacy with which the focus shifts to whatever city hosts the games next. For Tokyo, the delay has added an extra year of scepticism, and diminishing concern for the health of the cat in the box.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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