There will be no spectators at this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, officials announced today, as Japan enters its fourth state of emergency since the pandemic began. The news comes after organizers said in June that only domestic spectators would be allowed to watch the events in person.
The impact of Covid-19 on Japan has been relatively mild compared to the effect on the rest of the world — a success that experts attribute to ubiquitous mask wearing, among other things. The death toll, at just over 14,800, is far lower than that of the United States, and Japan has never gone into the kinds of hard lockdowns seen in places like Australia and Singapore.
But Japan’s vaccine rollout — now at more than a million doses a day — got off to a slow start, and the country has struggled with persistent moderate levels of infection.
Still, the Japanese public has expressed widespread opposition as the Olympic organizers have proceeded with planning for the Games. Recent polls show that a large majority of people support canceling or further delaying the Olympics.
Now that’s an idea! Every four years this bloated, capitalistic enterprise supposedly dedicated to international amity and respect rolls into a new city, displaces poor people who live there, and costs an absolutely staggering amount of money. As if that’s not bad enough, this year—after the Olympics was already postponed a year during the height of a global pandemic—it’s set to proceed in a country with a low vaccination rate, when COVID-19 variants are on the rise around the world. Even if you give yourself over to the optimistic thinking that this event, a possible coming together of every strain of COVID currently out there, won’t become a superspreader, the question remains: Why chance it if there’s even a possibility? We’re just coming out of a global pandemic—and by we, I mean the West, as COVID rates remain high in other countries—and we’re going to hold an Olympics??
But, on a bloodless level, it makes sense from Japan’s perspective, even if the objectives of public health and recouping any of the money you’ve spent on the Games so far are at cross-purposes. The one-year delay reportedly sent the cost of the games up by 22 percent, from $12.6 billion to $15.4 billion. (Japanese government auditors found the spending is at least $25 billion; an Oxford study called the Tokyo Games the most expensive ever.)
And what do they get for it? According to an illuminating story published back in May by Fast Company, not a whole hell of a lot:
While organizers of this year’s—technically, last year’s—Olympics maintain that their finances are and will remain healthy, experts say that’s unlikely, arguing that even under the best circumstances, host cities stand to lose money. With a global pandemic and a yearlong delay, the bottom line quickly goes from black (middle ring) to red (upper-right-hand ring).
“When you think, then, why countries would bother hosting the Olympic Games, one thing that should be noted is it’s kind of like fool’s gold,” says Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest College who studies the Olympics. “When you consider the Tokyo Games, that risk–reward profile has deteriorated even further.”
There’s an argument to be made that the Olympics shouldn’t exist at all—yes, I know, people like the warm-fuzzy feeling of watching them, which is nowhere near the warm-fuzzies their existence gives advertisers—but they doubly shouldn’t exist this summer. I’m no public health expert, but we’re only just now emerging from a year lost to COVID-19. Just today, the BBC visualized the total human cost of this pandemic at 4 million lives lost around the world. There isn’t enough gold in the world worth risking going back to that.