Japan continues its big Olympic bet


Last Friday, in a rifle marriage between the increase in the number of Covid-19 infections and the imminent delivery of the Olympics, the Japanese government extended its state of emergency for Tokyo and other regions until the end of the month.

Under the extended decree, companies will operate under artificial restrictions and the languid vaccination program will continue to frustrate a nation eager to work and mingle safely. The citizens of the most populous city in the world will be called upon not to make “unnecessary” trips outside their homes. For a government and a people who invite the world’s athletes to run, jump and sweat in Tokyo in less than 11 weeks, a lot will depend on that word.

Since the pandemic took hold last year, the Japanese government has, in many ways, left the question of what constitutes “unnecessary” to the interpretation of individuals and the private sector. At first, on the most terrifying days of the crisis, he correctly (and successfully) believed that the harsher reading would be applied, creating a snapshot of work-from-home policies and sharp lines between, say, purchases of food products and hats purchases. .

These lines have since faded. Current government efforts involve an attempt to reaffirm the old interpretation in the hope that it lowers the number of infections long enough to reclaim Japan’s reputation for controlling the disease. If he’s lucky, this can happen just before tens of thousands of athletes and their teams are introduced to immigration.

The problem – and, arguably, one of the reasons why the new state of emergency does not work as well as its predecessors – lies paradoxically in the preparations for the Olympic Games. The determination to move forward comes with the implication that these games, and all the contortions necessary to make them run safely, unambiguously fall under “necessary”.

The public, accosted daily by loudspeakers in the streets, must ask themselves whether a child’s picnic or a visit to the bookstore is, strictly speaking, necessary. The government appears to have had no difficulty defining simultaneous dressage, surfing and table tennis tournaments as vital activities. Anyone, regardless of their enthusiasm for the event itself, can see problems in it.

Three closely related elements stand out. The first is that, by emphasizing the need to hold the Olympics in a pandemic, Japan is relying heavily on the idea that its role as host is scripted by both duty and fate. This powerful idea in good hands was brilliantly exploited by advertising giant Dentsu to convince Japanese companies to go their separate ways. $ 3.1 billion Olympic sponsorship cash. But public reserves of enthusiasm are low after a year of being jostled by an invisible demon.

Could a charismatic Japanese leader persuade the population, 97% of whom have not yet been vaccinated, that it is their duty to absorb the risks of the event, rather than that of a supranational organization like the Committee? international olympic?

Could they persuade hundreds of doctors and nurses that their skills are best deployed in the service of games rather than the general public? Maybe, but it would take a lot more vim and sales than Yoshihide Suga, the Prime Minister, seems able or willing to rally.

The second problem is that the government risks creating a credibility deficit that could persist long after the torch has passed and the political priority returns to completing immunization of the world’s oldest population. Leaders around the world have been forced by this pandemic to make extremely difficult triage decisions. Japanese rulers risk spending months and years trying to convince voters that whatever it may sound like they were still more important than water polo and pole vault.

But the third and perhaps most demoralizing problem with treating games as something necessary is that they become exactly that: a joyless chore rather than the burgeoning festival of achievement, ambition and achievement. solidarity that the Olympics can be, at their best. The language of the preparations – with their solemn security pledges, the high likelihood of not seeing live spectators, and the onerous limitations placed on athletes visiting one of the world’s most exciting cities – seems redacted from any explanation on the way this is all going to be enjoyable.

Beyond the fierce organizational difficulties, the decision to host the games right now places a staggering demand on the patience, bravery and public spirit of Tokyo and Japan. Without any clear commitment to having fun – and the fact that this is all happening precisely because humanity thrives on the unnecessary – this demand may turn out to be excessive.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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