China ‘supports’ Tokyo Games to protect Beijing 2022

This is the second installment in a series examining other countries’ efforts to prepare for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“If the Tokyo Olympics cannot be held, we must expect our Olympics to be canceled as well,” said a source with ties to the government of China.

Relevant sectors of the Chinese government, such as the health and sports authorities, are assessing the possibility of the Tokyo Summer Games and the Beijing Winter Games — scheduled to start in February 2022 — being held, according to sources.

If the Tokyo Games are canceled due to the novel coronavirus, doubts will be raised about holding the Beijing Games as well. It could also lead to boycotts by the United States, Japan and other countries critical of China over its human right issues in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

According to the sources, the results of the assessments shared internally are extremely pessimistic.

Global headwinds against the Tokyo Games are also increasing. Recently, internationally influential media outlets including two major U.S. newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as the BBC, expressed skepticism over holding the Games.

China, however, has not wavered in its “support” for the Tokyo Games, despite being increasingly critical of Japan over the release into the sea of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. This is likely a political move to prevent the two Games from collapsing together.

Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his support for the Tokyo Games in a phone conversation with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on May 7. It was the fourth time Xi has publicly stated his support since December 2019.

From the athletes’ perspective, there are other reasons to not participate.

Win Htet Oo, a swimmer from Myanmar where the military’s suppression of civilians continues, has announced he will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics.

“I shall not march in the parade of nations under a flag steeped in my people’s blood,” he said in a statement he posted on Facebook on April 10.

In an online interview in mid-May with The Yomiuri Shimbun, the 26-year-old swimmer said: “The day will come when the Olympic Movement can enrich the lives of Myanmar’s people. It will not be under this regime.”

He also criticized the IOC for continuing to work with the Myanmar Olympic Committee, which is under the control of the Myanmar military, saying the IOC “has fallen short of the principles and values of the Olympic Charter, which wish for peace.”

In April, the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission published a statement, recommending to “Preserve the podium, FoP [field of play] and official ceremonies from any kind of protests and demonstrations, or any acts perceived as such.”

According to the commission, it surveyed over 3,500 athletes from 185 countries and regions, and about 70% said demonstrations were not appropriate.

While the Tokyo Games will be an opportunity to reaffirm the IOC’s commitment to “political neutrality,” an IOC official said criticism is getting stronger than ever, indicating that the Games this time are being held amid exceptional circumstances.

Various political considerations may continue to play a role. In the two months leading up to the scheduled opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, navigating through these rough waters will be the key to making the event a success.

Non-sports reasons for going ahead with Tokyo Games

Back in April during the Japan-U.S. summit in Washington, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga conveyed his determination to realize the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, presenting it as a symbol of global unity. A joint statement issued after the meeting stated that U.S. President Joe Biden supported Suga’s “efforts to hold a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.”

U.S. broadcaster NBC seemingly has a strong influence on the Olympics going ahead, as it paid a substantial amount of money to the International Olympic Committee for the broadcasting rights. Thus, the Japanese government has been emphasizing the importance of gaining support from the United States.

Domestically, the government is also nervous about public opinion. Currently, as people prioritize dealing with the novel coronavirus issue, many people criticize the government’s intent to hold the Tokyo Games, said an aide close to the prime minister. Yet this aide echoed the thoughts of many government officials, who believe that public opinion will change when vaccinations are widely available and more people become vaccinated.

Many people are deeply concerned that the Olympics could accelerate the influx of the virus from overseas, so the government has been working to significantly limit the number of people entering the country.

Initially, the government, the organizing committee and other entities involved expected the number of athletes, coaches and media would top 200,000 combined for the Olympics and Paralympics. Now, the estimate is less than half that number: approximately 69,000 for the Olympics and about 25,000 for the Paralympics.

The government will impose strict restrictions on any foreign visitors to Japan, such as limiting their range of activities to their lodgings and the Games venues, to minimize their contact with residents in Japan. The government is prepared to resort to deportations if a person violates these restrictions.

Olympic diplomacy

The attendance of world leaders at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games reflects the international political climate, with the Olympics having also served as a stage for diplomatic maneuvering.

Thus, Suga also plans to engage in “Olympic diplomacy” with world leaders visiting Japan. Some in the government believe that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Japan, but the lineup of visiting dignitaries has yet to be determined. Given that the head of the nation hosting the next Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games usually participates in the closing ceremony, French President Emmanuel Macron will possibly attend the ceremony as Paris is scheduled to host the 2024 Games.

As measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus, the government has requested countries to limit the number of dignitaries and their attendants to 12 for delegations led by heads of state and government, and five for delegations led by ministerial-level officials, including those in charge of sports.

The opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea was attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, then first vice director of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party. It was reported that she smiled and shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, creating a mood of reconciliation between the neighbors.

After the closing of the Games, a summit of the leaders of North and South Korea was held following a visit by Moon’s delegation to North Korea, which then led to the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, held in Singapore in June the same year.

At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the first Games held in China, more than 80 heads of state, including Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attended the opening ceremony.

Medalists’ ‘privilege’

South Korean sports officials have great expectations for the Tokyo Games, even though some people have begun to argue that the event should be canceled.

World Taekwondo, the international federation and governing body for the sport based in South Korea, relies on financial support from the IOC, which is funded by revenue from the hosting of the Games, for about 30% of its annual budget.

With the Tokyo Games postponed last year and the federation unable to hold international tournaments due to the pandemic, the federation’s finances have become tight. WT President Choue Chungwon has asked the South Korean government for financial support, according to sources.

The issue of military service for male athletes is also closely related to the holding of the Olympics. South Korea’s conscription system stipulates that men are generally obligated to perform military service for about 1½ years by the age of 28, but Olympic medalists are exempted.

For athletes, the blank period of military service has a significant impact on the rest of their lives as an athlete. Since exemption from military service is a sensitive issue that is seen as a “privilege,” athletes almost never publicly express their hopes for an exemption.

But some South Korean male athletes, whose age means the Tokyo Games will be their last chance to earn an exemption via an Olympic medal, seem to be quietly hoping that the Games will be held, observers said.