How will COVID-hit Tokyo Games affect future events?

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The operators of the Tokyo Games made it to the finish line without serious problems. What impact will the first Olympic and Paralympic Games ever held amid a major global pandemic have on preparations and bidding momentum for future Games?

Three days after the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board met on Sept. 8 to fully turn to preparations for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which were then just five months away.

Complex, diverse countermeasures

“The most important thing that we learned from the experience in Tokyo is the confidence and proof that you can organize safe Olympic Games under the [conditions] of a pandemic. But that needs great efforts of solidarity among all the participants,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at an online press conference. “The same will apply therefore for Beijing. It requires clear and strict regulations to which everyone would adhere and which must be based on scientific advice … We will more or less copy-paste the Playbook from Tokyo, but there will be other parts, adapted to different situations in China.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Wakako Yuki

The Feb. 4 opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics is now less than 100 days away. The coronavirus threat is still being felt around the world. Considering that winter seasonal conditions may also contribute to the spread of the virus, the Beijing Winter Olympics are expected to be on high alert against the infectious disease.

Asked about how to deal with spectators at the Beijing Winter Olympics, Bach said, “The IOC will follow the same principle as we did for Tokyo, [and] accept the decisions by the authority.”

With a sense of deja vu, efforts have begun again to establish complex and diverse measures against coronavirus infections.

With the Beijing Winter Olympics under criticism due to human rights issues, the IOC may face turbulent waters yet again, as was the case with the Tokyo Games, which were rocked by divisions in public opinion over whether they should be held at all.

Importance of public support

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, to whom the flags of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were passed at the closing ceremonies, said the 2024 Summer Games in Paris “will hopefully be a celebration in a post-COVID 19 era.”

She added: “But as a mayor with political responsibility, I know there are surprises, and we need to adapt. The Tokyo 2020 organization was faced with uncertainty and you showed great adaptability to have new solutions. You have set us on a new path.”

One lesson Paris learned from the Tokyo Games may be the importance of public support. Criticism of the Tokyo Games and opposition to holding the Paris Games have been heard even in France, with such voices becoming especially loud when the infection situation worsened.

For this reason, the Paris Games are being promoted as the “people’s Games,” with an emphasis on having the people participate in the process and take an interest in them. The Paris Games aim to create both tangible and intangible legacies, through such measures as regional redevelopment and the promotion of sports activities for citizens. There are also plans to hold the opening and closing ceremonies and some sports competitions in central Paris, including the Seine River.

Paris 2024 organizing committee President Tony Estanguet said that the Tokyo Games have given a valuable message to the world through the joy and humanity of the athletes: “Whatever the difficulty of the context, the Games are stronger than anything, and at the end of the day we are all brought [together] to live and share emotions.”

The unique success of the Tokyo Games in adverse circumstances will give Paris valuable confidence to seek its own path.

Aftermath of pandemic

What impact will the Tokyo Games have on the momentum of bidding efforts for future Games?

During the session just before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC decided on Brisbane, Australia, as the host for the 2032 Summer Games.

Brisbane was the only candidate to be nominated through a new selection process, in which the IOC had a direct dialogue with interested parties and narrowed down the field to a single candidate.

The selection of Brisbane showed that the IOC was aiming to secure a venue for the Summer Olympics 11 years ahead, foreseeing continued difficulties in both the global economy and state finances in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, Bach suggested there is no need to rush to select the host for the 2030 Winter Olympics, in which Sapporo had shown strong interest earlier. He seems to want time to gauge the various aftereffects of the Tokyo Games.

During the Tokyo Games, some sponsor companies were reluctant to place ads for fear of negative public opinion. They canceled corporate pavilions and hospitality programs due to the no-spectator policy. The benefits for sponsor companies have undoubtedly diminished. The cancellation of their ads also affected host broadcasters and other media. The tourism industry, which had expected to serve the many tourists visiting during the Games, was also hit hard.

How will the business sector, after learning the magnitude of such unforeseen risks, enthusiastically support bidding efforts in the future?

Looking at the political side, successful completion of the Tokyo Games did not boost the support rate of then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. While it was obvious that his popularity mainly suffered due to the pandemic, how will it affect governments that engage in bidding for future Games?

Trends in public opinion were the key element affecting politicians and sponsors alike. How will public opinion in Japan and around the world evolve regarding future Olympics? When will the coronavirus pandemic, which has been clearly affecting public opinion in this respect, be brought under control?

The fact that Japan kept its promise to the international community and completed the Tokyo Games despite all the difficulties was appreciated and praised by the world. Under normal circumstances, such sympathy and good feelings could have provided a tailwind for Sapporo’s Winter Games bid.

It is important to pay close attention to the ongoing evaluation of the Tokyo Games in various sectors and how it will influence future Games.

■ Wakako Yuki

Yuki has covered the IOC for more than 28 years, reporting on 14 Summer and Winter Olympics and nine Summer and Winter Paralympics since 1994, including the Sydney and Athens Games, to which she was sent as a correspondent. She has been a Yomiuri Shimbun senior writer since 2011. She is a member of the sports council of the Japan Sports Agency, and the vice president of the Japan Olympic Academy.