Tokyo : Even before it begins, holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo has felt like an energy-sapping endurance event. Originally scheduled for last summer and postponed due to the pandemic, the decision to go ahead has been widely questioned.
As the action unfolds, Japan’s capital city will be under a state of emergency. The whole world will be watching a government seeking to manage the most prestigious sport mega-event against the backdrop of a global public-health crisis.
Officials will be anxious to ensure the Games do not become widely remembered as a superspreading event. At the same time, they will be desperate to salvage something from an event that was supposed to engage sport as a means to bring about economic, social and political change in Japan.
The decision to bid for hosting rights was made shortly after the Fukushima tsunami in 2011. An Olympic Games was seen as being a positive step in helping the country recover from the tragedy.
Around the same time, Japan’s government passed laws designed to promote national happiness and prosperity through sport. Seen from this vantage point, the Games have always been intended to leave the country more prosperous.
Nevertheless, when Shinzo Abe became prime minister in 2012, Japan’s hosting of the Olympics took on a different complexion. Abe saw it as a way to fundamentally change his country’s image and world standing, while also sustaining his time in office.
Japan, like many developed countries, faces public health issues, with 40% of its population considered physically inactive. At the same time, its athletes have often under-performed at previous Olympic Games.
In 2016 it sent 338 athletes to the Rio de Janeiro Games but secured only twelve gold medals. By comparison, Great Britain, which has roughly half the population of Japan, won 27 golds that year.
Abe believed that staging the Olympics could help address these issues. He also saw opportunities for the Games to address some of the country’s political and economic challenges. Over the last three decades, Japan’s former industrial pre-eminence has suffered following years of economic stagnation, which has been compounded by the rise of its neighbours and competitors.
While China has become a global economic powerhouse and South Korea a world leader in electronics, Japan has been left behind with a rather stale image as the home of manga, console games and sushi. In the 21st century, nation branding and soft power matter, and Japan hasn’t been winning any prizes recently.
In one ranking of soft power, Japan’s global standing has taken a hit amid international concerns about trust in government, gender inequality and cultural inaccessibility.
Abe understood the soft power challenges that Japan has faced, resulting in him introducing, for example, his 2016 Sport for Tomorrow programme, aimed at providing 10 million children in 100 countries with opportunities to engage in sport. This has apparently been a success.