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Tokyo Olympics in troubled times

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People take a picture of the countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games displaying 5 days and 9 hours to go to the opening ceremony, outside Tokyo station in Tokyo on Sunday. AFP

Tokyo Olympics in troubled times

The 2020 Summer Games open in Tokyo on July 23, a year later than scheduled. The Covid-19 pandemic forced a year delay in holding the games, though many in Japan and elsewhere have argued that they should be canceled. A recent rise in Covid-19 cases in Japan prompted the government to bring back emergency measures that will prevent spectators from attending events. Athletes will compete in quiet, empty venues.

For Tokyo, this marks the second time the city has hosted the Summer Olympics. In 1964, the Japanese economy had recovered from the devastation of World War II and the country was on a path to becoming an economic superpower. The Olympics were a chance to highlight Japan’s recovery and rising world status. Domestically, it was a chance to highlight the growth of the middle class after adopting the Income Doubling Plan in 1960 and infrastructure improvements, such as the first shinkansen “bullet train”. For years, generations of Japanese would remember the 1964 Olympics as ushering in a period of growing middle-class prosperity and convenience.

Internationally, the 1964 Olympics were held at the height of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union and the rise of the nonaligned movement composed mostly of recently independent states in Asia and Africa. Amid these tensions, the Olympic Games were a venue for nation states to project influence and gain recognition.

Japan has changed in the 47 years since the 1964 Olympics. Except for brief downturns during oil crises in the 1970s, the Japanese economy continued to roar until 1991 when the economic bubble burst. In the 1980s, countries around the world were looking at Japan as an economic and social model to emulate. As the economic slump of the 1990s dragged on and other countries, such as South Korea, began to attract attention, interest in Japan waned. Japan today has less influence on the world stage compared to the heady 1980s.

The world has seen even greater changes. The Cold War ended almost 30 years ago. New economic and cultural powers have emerged, the most obvious of which are China and India. Most nations of Europe now use a common currency. An interconnected world is now facing a terrible pandemic and the existential threat of climate change.

Like the 1964 Olympics, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics reflect Japan and the world in 2021. The Japan of 2021 is not the goal-oriented country of 1964. From the outset, most Japanese people were not enthusiastic about the Olympics. This lack of enthusiasm explains the public’s reticence about holding the Olympics amid the pandemic. In late June, a poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed that only 33 per cent want to hold the Tokyo Games as scheduled this year, while 32 per cent want them canceled and 30 per cent support another delay. Medical organisations, business leaders, and opinion leaders have called for the Games to be canceled, but the government has ignored their pleas.

Enthusiasm outside of Japan is also low as the pandemic continues to rage. The pandemic has forced people to focus on immediate needs, making the Olympics in Tokyo seem very distant. At a deeper level, the pandemic hit as many nations had begun to turn inward. Brexit and Trump are the most obvious examples of the populist inward turn, but it has also affected other countries differently. China’s attempts to use technology to control its population is another such manifestation. Post-Cold War support for cooperation and globalisation is facing strong headwinds from the populist backlash.

Tokyo joins a lengthy list of Olympic Games held amid controversy and criticism. Some commentators, mostly on the political left, have argued that they should be discontinued. For all the criticism, the Olympics remain the premiere international event that brings the world together in one place. They reflect the idealistic desire for cooperation and world peace.

It is no coincidence, then, that the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney are widely considered the most successful games in history. That year was the peak of post-Cold War cooperation and optimism about globalisation. After the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, nation states began to assert themselves, creating space for a slow but steady creep of unilateral actions and controls.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are a victim of troubled times as much as they are weak leadership in a diminished Japan. One can only hope that the populist my-country-first fever of today gives way to a new appreciation for cooperation and, yes, globalisation in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Robert J Fouser is former associate professor at Seoul National University.



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