Shibuya intersection in Tokyo is near deserted on Saturday night. Photo: Jake Adelstein

As the dark shadow of the novel coronavirus spreads ever further across the globe, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games were, on March 24 postponed to 2021 – though in what looks like a smart move for merchandizers and marketers, the brand will remain “Toyko 2020.”

After an initial period of shock, awe and angst most of Japan seems to be okay with it – but now the country has more pressing concerns.

The Olympic flame proved a great draw for the public. On March 21, nearly 52,000 people crowded JR Sendai Station in Northeastern Japan to see the flame before the relay, thus spreading Olympic fever — and possibly a nastier kind of fever: Covid-19.  

Tokyo lockdown?

Thus far, Japan has been reporting surprisingly low numbers of Covid-19 infections. It has been conducting minimal tests, and has not implemented the kind of lockdowns seen across parts of China, Europe and the United States. Despite school closures and sumo playing to empty stadia, much of the densely populated country has carried on as per normal.

Some observers are unimpressed. In a rather undiplomatic letter to German citizens in Japan posted on the Embassy Of Germany’s web site on March 24, the embassy did not mince words in discussing Japan’s coronavirus handling. “The risk of infection in Japan cannot be assessed seriously. It can be assumed that there are a high number of unreported infections due to the small number of tests carried out.” It also added that tests were only performed, if at all, under stringent conditions. 

Now that the Olympic horizon has receded to an uncertain date in 2021, PR pressures on Tokyo City Hall to reassure a worried world may have lifted.

With Tokyoites cavorating en masse under the cherry blossoms, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has taken a harder line than heretofore. Announcing that the disease could be spreading faster than the Olympic torch relay, she is mulling closing down the entire mega-city.

A dress rehearsal was held this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Though there was no actual order for persons to stay inside and police were not detailed to enforce the semi-lockdown, most Tokyoites followed the governor’s advice and stayed behind closed doors. Many – not all – shops and restaurants were closed and the iconic Shibuya crossing was virtually deserted on Saturday evening.

On Monday, things are set to return to normal — with uncertain results — while the country renews its grapple with the ramifications of Olympic postponement.

Japan supports delay

Kyodo News Service conducted a public opinion survey, between March 26th and 28th, publishing the results on Sunday. Some 78.7% of the Japanese public felt postponing the Olympics for a year was appropriate and good; only 11.1% felt it should be postponed for two years. Roughly 6% of the population felt it should be called off, and a mere 1.8% felt it should be held within the year. 

Amongst the 1.8% might be Governor Koike.

Though she is now sounding a warning on the virus, on March 12 — the day after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic — she told a gaggle of reporters: “It can’t be said that the announcement of a pandemic would have no impact… But I think cancellation is unthinkable.” 

Winners and losers 

If you’re an Olympics goods collector or merchandizer, have no fear: Your Tokyo 2020 polo shirt, key chain and souvenir mascot need no re-brands.

In a March 24 teleconference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach not only agreed to move the Olympics to some time in 2021 but also to keep the name the same: “The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games.”

This proved understandably confusing to the general public so the Mainichi Shimbun ran a helpful Q&A for its readers, as follows:  

Q: “Why will the Games still be called ‘Tokyo 2020’ if they will be held in 2021?”

A: “Bach approved using the same name for the Games, even if held in 2021. Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, also said: “We have no choice but to think that the Games have been extended [to 2021], but we don’t need to go as far as to changing its impression [by calling it the 2021 Olympics].”

Q: “Why will the postponed Olympics still be called ‘Tokyo 2020?’”

A: “Torches, medals and various other official merchandise have already been made using the name ‘Tokyo 2020.’ If the name changes, it will cause concerns about possible additional costs.”

“Possible additional costs” is an understatement, Fortunately, the move appears to have worked. On Amazon’s Japan website, few items have had their prices marked down, indicating that the paraphernalia market is, indeed, safe. 

Most venues planned to be used for the Games in 2020 will still be used in 2021. Even so, some facilities – notably, the Tokyo Olympic Village — are in limbo. 

The postponement will delay the handover of the highly-sought after condominiums at the village, originally set aside for athletes’ use in July-August of this year. That leaves the developers and future residents in the lurch; hundreds of the units were to be converted into commercial dwellings after the Olympics ended.

Mitsui Fudosan, one the developers involved in the project, is flummoxed. “We hadn’t factored in a postponement,” the company announced. 

And there are other numerous small and big problems to be resolved. 

What should be done with the giant clock in the middle of Roppongi Hills counting down the days until the Olympics start? Turn it off? Reset it? 

As for people holding hard-won tickets for the Games’ various events, no one knows what will happen to them in the wake of the changed timing.

Athletes, coaches and teams are all in limbo, awaiting a date. What will happen to the various sports’ tournaments that had been scheduled for after the Olympics in 2021? Will athletes have to re-qualify for the Games if too much time passes?

And can athletes in peak form for this year’s Olympics re-peak in 2021? As one Japanese athlete quipped: “Age is the one competitor you can’t defeat.” 

The postponement will certainly cost money; it is unclear whether contingency funds of 27 billion yen will be enough. The cost of maintaining facilities and possibly refunding tickets, all have to be considered.

At the end of 2019, organizers estimated the total cost of the 2020 Tokyo Games to be around ¥1.35 trillion ($12.6 billion). However, Japan’s Board of Audit came to a far higher estimate estimate — 3 trillion yen ($27 billion). 

The Olympic countdown clock in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills needs a reset. Photo: Jake Adelstein

Silver linings 

There are some upsides.

A Tokyo smoking ban that was designed to come in ahead of the Summer Games — prohibiting smoking in restaurants, bars and closed spaces – is still set for implementation on April 1.  That’s a gold-medal boon for Tokyoites’ health.

And in 2021, the Tokyo Olympics may not take place during the sweltering Japanese summer, a time when death from heat-stroke is a very real possibility. 

It is widely understood that the mid-summer time slot is chosen by the IOC for the benefit of their deep-pocketed media partners, so that the Games do not clash with the European and US autumn sport seasons.

Tokyo made efforts to address the heat issue with an eyebrow-raising statement made during the bid process for the Games. A document submitted by Tokyo to the International Olympic Committee, originally stated: “The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games 16-day competition period will be from Saturday 25 July to Sunday 9 August …with many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”

The IOC was unimpressed and unilaterally moved the marathon to Northern Japan’s cooler Sapporo — against the shrill protests of Koike. 

In 2021, it is possible that the Games will be held at a more seasonally ideal time earlier or later in the year; they took place in October for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Japan. 

Whether the IOC and their moneyed media sponsors would agree is as yet unknown.

Abe’s farewell

Still a handful of newspapers editorials, have already preemptively scolded Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for declaring the Games should take place before summer 2021.

His term as prime minister is expected to end in September of 2021 but, as one paper notes, “Perhaps he does have the ulterior motive of finishing off his final term with a bang — the Games. However, the Olympics are not hosted for the sake of an administration’s legacy.”