100 Days: Tokyo Olympics marked by footnotes and asterisks

A boy looks at a cellphone after his mother took pictures of him in front of a display of the Olympic rings at the Japan Olympic Museum on April 2 in Tokyo.

TOKYO — Tokyo pitched itself as "a safe pair of hands” when it was awarded the Olympics 7 1/2 years ago.

“The certainty was a crucial factor," Craig Reedie, an IOC vice president at the time, said after the 2013 vote in Buenos Aires.

Now, nothing is certain as Tokyo's postponed Olympics hit the 100-days-to-go mark on Wednesday. Despite surging cases of COVID-19, myriad scandals and overwhelming public opposition in Japan to holding the Games, organizers and the IOC are pushing on.

Tokyo's 1964 Olympics celebrated Japan's rapid recovery from defeat in World War II. These Olympics will be marked by footnotes and asterisks. The athletes will aim high, of course, but the goals elsewhere will be modest: get through it, avoid becoming a super-spreader event, and stoke some national pride knowing few other countries could have pulled this off.

“The government is very conscious of how ‘the world’ views Japan,” Dr. Gill Steel, who teaches political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto, wrote in an email. “Canceling the Olympics would have been seen, at some level, as a public failure on the international stage.”

The price will be steep when the Olympics open on July 23.

The official cost is $15.4 billion. Olympic spending is tough to track, but several government audits suggest it might be twice that much, and all but $6.7 billion is public money.

The Switzerland-based IOC generates 91% of its income from selling broadcast rights and sponsorship. This amounts to at least $5 billion in a four-year cycle, but the revenue flow from networks like American-based NBC has been stalled by the postponement.

What does Tokyo get out of the 17-day sports circus?

Fans from abroad are banned, tourism is out, and there'll be no room for neighborhood partying. Athletes are being told to arrive late, leave early and maneuver around a moving maze of rules.

There are also reputational costs for Japan and the International Olympic Committee: a bribery scandal, botched planning, and repeated misogyny in the Tokyo Olympic leadership.

The IOC is betting Tokyo will be a distraction — “the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel”— as the closing ceremony comes just six months before the opening of the boycott-threatened Beijing Winter Olympics.

Various polls suggest up to 80% of Japanese want the Olympics canceled or postponed. And many scientists are opposed.

“It is best to not hold the Olympics given the considerable risks,” Dr. Norio Sugaya, an infectious diseases expert at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, told The Associated Press.

Japan's vaccine rollout has been almost nonexistent, few will get shots before the Olympics open, and Tokyo has raised its “alert level” with another wave predicted about the time of the opening ceremony. About 9,500 deaths in Japan have been attributed to COVID-19, good by global measures but poor by standards in Asia.

And what's the impact of 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from more than 200 countries and territories entering Japan, joined by tens of thousands of officials, judges, media, and broadcasters?

“The risks are high in Japan. Japan is dangerous, not a safe place at all,” Sugaya said.

The heavily sponsored torch relay with 10,000 runners crisscrossing Japan also presents hazards. Legs scheduled for Osaka this week were pulled from the streets because of surging COVID-19 cases and relocated into a city park — with no fans allowed. Other legs across Japan are also sure to be disrupted.

The IOC and Japanese politicians decided a year ago to postpone but not cancel the Olympics, driven by inertia and the clout of Japanese ad giant Dentsu Inc., which has lined up a record of $3.5 billion in local sponsorship — probably three times more than any previous Olympics.

“I think the government knows full well the Japanese public doesn’t want the Olympics as of now,” Dr. Aki Tonami, who teaches political science at the University of Tsukuba, wrote in an email to AP. “But no one wants to be the one to pull the plug."

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