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Japan’s 2020 Olympics

Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP

With karate, skateboarding, baseball and surfing, and medals made of recycled materials the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, the most sponsored sports event in world history with a price tag of a cool $26 billion was already going to set memorable records.

Now, it has a more dubious distinction. In an unprecedented move, the Olympic Games are being postponed from their original scheduled dates of July 24-August 9, they have been moved back a year to 23 July until 8 August 2021, although the “2020” title will remain.

Japan has seen Olympics disrupted by events before, during the Second World War, when the 1940 contest was cancelled entirely.

The decision to move the games has been viewed as a bitter blow to the country’s economy, and perhaps more importantly to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and millions of others in Japan, its prestige. The games were intended to show how Japan had recovered from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, with the Olympic torch displayed prominently in the city for tourists, who were estimated to have increased from 10 to 34 million annually.

Now, visitors are barred from viewing the flame, due to fear of spreading the virus, and Abe has announced a state of emergency. The Japanese government announced the move, endorsed by the WHO, last month only after countries threatened not to send athletes to the games if they weren’t postponed. Initially, some wanted to see the games moved to the spring to match the timing of the country’s cherry blossoms.

In the end, the summer was chosen, not due to the virus, but so as not to conflict with U.S. domestic spring sports. The words of the head of the International Olympics Committee, Thomas Bach, have been echoed throughout the media and official communications to put a positive spin on the delay. “Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic flame can be a light at the end of this tunnel.”

6,500 athletes who qualified for 2020 are automatically eligible to participate, although athletes can now join ahead of June 29, 2021.

“While the country seems relatively safe in regards to the pandemic, the global situation is not good,” said George Miller, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs on Temple’s Japan campus.There was just no way to bring athletes and fans from around the world here this summer in a way that would be safe.”

“The difficulty is that it hurts the Japanese economy at a time when the Japanese economy really needed a boost,” he added. “Things have been rather stagnant here, especially since the government increased the consumption tax from 8 to 10 percent last fall. The windfall from the Olympics was supposed to jump-start the economy.”

In the meantime, scandals have brewed over potential bribery surrounding Tokyo’s original hosting rights, as Haruyuki Takahashi, a Japanese businessman, was accused of giving gamemakers expensive watches and cameras.

Ana Nicole, a Temple student and Freely member in Japan, said the mood among many Japanese upon the Games’ cancellation has been one of “quiet relief and well-controlled frustration.”

Philadelphia’s Japan America Society was planning three years ago for the Tokyo celebrations, which were set to be the centerpiece of JapanPhilly 2020. Now, everything has been thrown off, said Kim Andrews, executive director of the organization.

“Having the Tokyo Olympics cancelled shows how serious the virus is,” she added. “Some of our sponsors also sponsor the Tokyo events. It is definitely the right choice, we however, are continuing our 2020 programming, we are continuing this modernism exhibit which will have a larger online component. There are other expositions and performances.”

Despite the delays, Andrews believes the events, and the Games in Japan, will prove successful.  “I think the American public will be even more enthusiastic about the Olympics next year, it will feel like a fresh start like we are moving back to our old lives.”

“The global pandemic should be well under control by the Games in 2021, so it will be an amazing time to bring the world together,” Miller concluded. “The Games in the summer of 2021 will be a celebration of life. After more than a year of struggling and recovery, the world will be ready to gather and compete and cheer each other on.”