This week, an International Olympic Committee organiser and Shinzo Abe have hinted that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo could be postponed until 2021 due to the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). We have yet to receive a definitive answer. LSE-PKU MSc student Claire H. Evans writes that Japan’s delay in postponing the Games could loom large in its legacy if it decides to push forth, rather than favouring safety and public health.
As the world battles COVID-19, in Japan the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) is resolutely pressing ahead with preparations for this year’s events. With the Olympic Games due to take place from 24th July to 9th August and the Paralympic Games from 25th August to 6th September, this spring should have been a period of excitement and anticipation in Japan. While Olympic Flame arrived in Japan on Friday, the event mascots Miraitowa and Someity have been visiting cities around Europe as part of the “Make the Beat!” tour. However, that tour has now been suspended and anticipation for the Tokyo Games has been replaced with numerous calls for Japan to cancel or postpone the Olympics. This week, Canada and Australia have become the first countries to indicate that their athletes will not take part in the Games if they go ahead this year.
It is understandable that the IOC and TOCOG are reluctant to change plans. The Olympic Games require extraordinary logistical planning and capabilities. The Games are also a major investment for the host, with the estimated cost of Tokyo 2020 lying somewhere between $26 billion and $28 billion. Following unsuccessful bids for the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, hosted by Beijing and Rio de Janeiro respectively, the planning for Tokyo 2020 has effectively been underway for nearly fifteen years. To cancel would, of course, be a major disappointment for the city, its population, and spectators from across the world. However, with other major sporting events including Euro 2020, the French Open and the African Nations Championship having already been postponed, the clock is ticking for TOCOG to realise that forging ahead with the Olympics is a huge risk, not only for concerned athletes and spectators and the general population of Japan, but also for the long-term legacy of Tokyo 2020.
The Olympic Games are the largest mega-event in the world and present an unparalleled opportunity for public diplomacy due to their massive media appeal. Media attention is part of the attraction of hosting, as the host can promote national narratives to improve the country’s image and boost tourism. Because the core principles of Olympism frame the Olympic movement as a force for goodwill and peace, the Olympics are permeated by a celebratory atmosphere, and the media generally seek out positive and ‘inspirational’ stories related to the Olympics.
Many host cities have utilised this global media attention to their advantage. As an event that began in Europe and is still firmly rooted in Western traditions, hosting the Olympics has taken on a particular significance in East Asia. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964, the first to be held in Asia, marked a turning point for Japan as it demonstrated its recovery from the Second World War and a peaceful return to the global stage. Some have described the event as a “coming out party” for Japan, a narrative that was also co-opted by the organisers of the 1988 Games in Seoul, which provided an opportunity for South Korea to show itself as an economically developed and serious international power. Likewise, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were regarded as China’s chance for its own coming out party, with Chinese state media describing hosting the Olympics as “the dream of a hundred years,” emphasising the long history of Euro-American dominance, both in hosting and competing at the Olympic Games.
Narratives on the significance of the Olympic Games for Asia have seen a renewed interest since the Games of 2018, 2020 and 2022 were awarded to South Korea, Japan and China respectively. This is the first time any continent besides Europe will host three iterations of the Games in a row, a significant moment in Olympic history. Commentary on the build-up for each of these three events has drawn on the history of the 1964, 1988 and 2008 Games, demonstrating another important aspect of Olympic hosting: the legacy.
Host nations have tried, with varying levels of success, to define the legacy of their events, but in the end, it is the news stories surrounding the Games that define how they are remembered. Media narratives can be directed by the host to some extent, as we saw at PyeongChang 2018, when the South Korean organisers seized an opportunity to cram as much peace symbolism as possible into the Opening Ceremony, following President Moon Jae-in’s decision to invite North Korea to participate. While much of the media coverage of PyeongChang highlighted themes of peace and unity, casting the event and the country in a positive light, this also demonstrated the way in which the legacy of an Olympiad can be dominated by concurrent developments.
This can be seen in a number of cases in which the legacy of a particular edition of the Games is overshadowed by the memory of a tragic event, either at the Games themselves or during the preparations. The memory of Munich 1972 is inextricably linked to the horrific massacre of Israeli athletes and a West German police officer by the terrorist group Black September. The legacy of Atlanta 1996 was similarly tainted by the memory of the Centennial Park Bombing. A more pertinent case with regard to Tokyo 2020 is that of Rio de Janeiro 2016, coverage of which was clouded with concerns about the Zika virus. Calls for cancellation by some health experts were not heeded by the IOC, which was guided by advice from the WHO, and the Games went ahead as planned. Despite the fact that, according to the WHO, no Zika cases occurred during the Games or after athletes and visitors returned home, the virus was such a major international concern at the time that its name goes hand-in-hand with the memory of Rio.
It is becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 is an outbreak of a completely different scale and nature. As the public are being told that containment measures may last for months, TOCOG is facing increasing pressure to cancel or postpone the Olympics. The organisers worry that Tokyo 2020 will forever be remembered as “the Olympics that were cancelled for coronavirus,” and rightly so — Olympic history shows us that major events linked to the Games tend to be more memorable than the Games themselves. At this point it is inevitable that the legacy of Tokyo 2020 will forever conjure up memories of a pandemic, whether they go ahead in July or not.
However, it will be better for the IOC to be remembered for a decision favouring safety and public health, rather than Tokyo 2020 being remembered, along with Berlin 1936, as the Olympics that went ahead despite calls for cancellation. It is also in the interest of the hosts to take responsibility and make an early decision, before more nations follow Canada and Australia’s lead and withdraw from competition. The Olympics has a long history of boycotts, most famously during the Cold War, and at Montreal 1976 when 25 African countries protested New Zealand’s sporting interactions with South Africa. These boycotts marred the legacy of those Games, and it now seems that a mass boycott is on the cards for 2020. This unsavoury prospect can be avoided if the Games are postponed.
The first fundamental principle of Olympism, as recorded in the Olympic Charter, states: “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” The IOC and TOCOG should be guided by this philosophy and learn from Olympic history when contemplating the decision to move forward with the Games in July. COVID-19 will loom large in the legacy of Tokyo 2020 regardless of what happens next, but the organisers will, hopefully, choose to listen to the concerns of participants and mitigate risk and anxiety by postponing the Games.
Claire H. Evans is a student in the LSE-PKU Double MSc in International Affairs programme. Her thesis at PKU explored international media narratives of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. She holds a BA in Chinese from Oxford University, for which she researched the importance of the 1988 Seoul Olympics for Sino-Korean relations.