Opinion & Analysis

Tokyo's Olympics debate

 Muscles, Money, and Might: On the Postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

On March 24th, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be postponed until next year.  A week later it was confirmed the Games had been rescheduled for July 2021, with the Paralympics scheduled for the following month. Dr Shin Takahashi suggests the coronavirus crisis may well justify cancelling the games altogether.

Given the rapid advances of COVID-19, it was really only a matter of time until the official postponement was announced.

Since the first reported cases of the virus in December 2019, 1,866 cases have been confirmed positive in almost all prefectures in Japan as of March 31st.

Prime Minister Abe said that it is ‘impossible’ to hold the Olympics this year while assuring the safety of the athletes and audience, and given the worsening public health situation around the world.

1280px Tokyo 2020 olympicsThe 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until 2021. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is a big decision, to the extent that future historians might call ‘historic’, as there has never been a postponement of the games. Tokyo has set a precedent in the history of the modern Olympics.

But I am puzzled about why the Japanese government declined to discuss total cancellation of the event as Plan B (or C or D). It is always necessary to be prepared with an alternative plan, in the event that Plan A fails.

As someone lecturing in Japanese studies, I am aware that this is a highly delicate issue. But given the uncertainty around when COVID-19 will end, seeking an alternative date for the event should not be the only option.

Cancellation must also be discussed publicly. As of today, however, this does not appear to be the case between Japan and its dialogue with the International Olympic Committee.

We may need to take a deep breath and reflect on why the cancellation was precluded from the (publicly discussed) options.

To this end, let’s look at one of  the world’s largest cultural festivals through three characteristics: Muscles, Money, and Might.


The Olympic Games are all about the human body at peak performance, and watching athletes at full stretch is at the core of the event. However, the Olympics is also a great venue to observe sport and the athletes involved as the object of great national and technological investment.

For example, in February 2018, then 18 year-old Japanese multiple record holding swimmer, Ikee Rikako, suddenly returned from a training camp in Australia due to Leukaemia. The shock-wave ran through the entire Japanese nation.

An executive of the Japan Swimming Federation stated that he hoped for the athlete’s quick recovery but the reason he gave was because it would be ‘extremely difficult to compete in the relay without her’.

This heavy expectation  was compounded by the heated media coverage over whether the athlete would be able to come back to the race (‘for Japan’). The struggle of the athlete for survival was interrupted by the needs of the nation.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics stadium constructionThe Board of Audit of Japan reported that the total budget involved in the Olympics is estimated at over $US9 billion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sports brands with which the national team or individual athlete sign sponsorship deals are also important ‘stakeholders’. Extensive research and development are ever more crucial in enhancing the athletes’ performance.

Public Relations companies, such as Dentsu Inc., are actively engaged in promoting the athletes not only for their physical excellence but also for their clean images. Other major firms are also committed to sponsoring strong sports federations. Over the body of an individual athlete, there are numerous expectations, hopes, and financial investment.


Investment goes not only to body, but also to the stage setting. For example, the TV network NBC, which has been televising the Olympics in the country since 1988, purchased the broadcasting rights for $US7.8 billion in 2014, and will hold those rights until 2032.

Last December, the Board of Audit of Japan revealed that the total budget involved in the Olympics is estimated at over $US9 billion.

This is just the Japanese government budget for the games. If we take a broader view which includes the private sector , we see an astronomical amount of cash moving around the Olympics economy. From major PR companies to small factories, retailers, land developers, banks and of course private investors, the Olympics itself is the biggest financial magnet of any global sports event. And this relates to my third theme :might.


They say money begets money and also power. I understand that the Olympics is a type of total mobilisation of economy and society. The words the leaders speak and the decisions they make can change the nature and order of things, including sometimes our ethics and sense of justice.

There has been criticism in Japan over the wisdom of Olympic organisers holding the marathon in Tokyo’s stifling mid-summer heat, and the triathlon in the filthy water of the Tokyo Bay, polluted due to the poor sewage system.

The main stadium was itself constructed after demolishing 50 year-old public apartments that were still in use. The residents had no choice but to leave their homes with scant compensation (estimated around $2,500 NZD per household).

kyle dias ZIoi 47zV88 unsplash 2Photo by Kyle Dias on Unsplash

What we see behind the excitement of the Olympics is the myriad entangled knots of economic and social interests across Japan.  

The Olympics might bring in economic opportunities to the country, but they also change our sense of fairness, and they can ravage the lives of those who Japanese who are socially marginalised.

The Olympics is an enormous economic enterprise that can also raise the spectre of corruption, including the alleged bribery around the initial decision to bring the games to Japan. Those allegations have been under investigation by the French Office of the Prosecutor.

As an athlete, investor, or an audience, we are in a loosely connected loop that circles this mega cultural festival, and this is probably a reason why we hesitate to speak out about cancellation in public.

However, in this extraordinary time, we need to restore our collective common sense about the best options we can take for the fundamental value of the human community, and as individuals.  If we feel that personal or collective well-being could be sacrificed, again, during the COVID-19 pandemic for the sake of the games, then in my opinion we must boycott the Olympics.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Dr Shin Takahashi's expertise is on Japanese culture and history. He is a lecturer in Japanese studies at Victoria University of Wellington., where he teaches modern and contemporary Japanese culture and history. 

 -Asia Media Centre