A woman wearing a face mask, amid concerns over the spread of Covid-19, sits at a bus stop in front of a Tokyo 2020 Olympics advertisement in Bangkok on Monday. Photo: AFP / Mladen Antonov

On March 16, 2020, US President Donald Trump said that the coronavirus could stretch into July or August before the situation is under control.

The US may consider “hot spots” in the nation for lockdowns but a full national lockdown isn’t under consideration. Yet. New White House guidelines called for social gatherings above 10 people to be avoided. Batten down the hatches. The US is in deep for at least the next two seasons.

Hello Covid-19 July-August. Goodbye Tokyo Olympics 2020 July 24 to August 9.

We’ve expected bad news, but it just keeps coming: global cruise lines turned into floating petri dishes. Empty aircraft and airports, stocks plummeting to rock bottom. The new normal numbers of border closures, national and state emergencies, job cuts, social chaos, and massive institutional shutdowns are signaling a wartime decisiveness against the global pandemic and its exponential growth. And Japan’s leaders keep whistling past the graveyard.

With the March 14 announcement of the “go ahead” of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the decisiveness of Japan’s leadership is going in the wrong direction. Japan is about to face the full force of Covid-19. And its name is Corona 2020.   

In history, Japan has campaigned to host the Olympics on a dozen occasions but succeeded in hosting only three: 1972 and 1998 Winter Olympics and the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which were held in October to avoid the heat and humidity.

The 1940 bid was approved but suspended due to war. After its recent unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Olympics, Japan invested heavily in preparing for the 2020 event. Spending was estimated in excess of $12 billion, including a $1.4 billion timber-built stadium, plus $3 billion-plus revenues in domestic sponsorship alone.

Understandably, Japanese leadership is reluctant to see it all wasted. As of March 16, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is standing shoulder to shoulder with the host, and merely preparing for “virus crisis talks.”

There is no doubt that Japan’s economy will take a serious hit if (and we think when) the games are canceled. The ripple effect will depress local purchasing. In absence of a “Plan B” sponsors, insurers, media and advertising firms, as well as international broadcasting partners, will see their billion dollars deals and contracts melt down and wash away with Fukushima’s radioactive water.

A severe loss is inevitable even if the event is postponed or relocated after renegotiating bazillion contracts with a dizzying variety of international partners. Not to mention that Japan must deal with its fair share of Covid-19 troubles at home before it welcomes guests.

This begs two questions: will Japan get the least of its investment back if the event goes on? Will Japan be able to uphold its positive image as a leader of global event organizing? With 4.5 million tickets already sold, Japan initially expected more than 500,000 foreign spectators for the Olympics, with a goal of contributing to 40 million overseas visitors in 2020, from 31.9 million in 2019.

However, as of 2018, more than 80% of these visitors are from the top 20 countries that are also among the most infected populations, such as China (1st), South Korea (2nd), Taiwan (3rd), Hong Kong (4th), the US (5th), Italy (18th), Spain (19th). How wise is it for Japan to still expect to fill in the empty stadiums with visitors from these countries? 

Globally, it a matter of serious preparation and trials for the 11,000 athletes from 206 participating nations before the actual competition takes place, spanning months and even years. With the pandemics affecting the countries so asymmetrically at different time, space, and pace, are these nations still able to prepare to participate and hope to win, with equal and usual strengths? If not, does it still make sense to make them compete against each other when obviously one is more equipped to handle the crisis than others?

Yes, viruses, regional conflicts, and boycotts have threatened previous Olympics, but the events went on. The Zika virus didn’t impact the Rio Olympics in 2016 as badly it was predicted. Covid-19 is unlike any other obstacle the IOC has ever faced. A wave of cancellations and postponements of sports events around the globe has already disrupted the spirit and level-playing field for the preparation. With this level of volatility and uncertainty across global regions, a late July Olympics will no longer be a fair game for many countries.

This global pandemic is forcing all of us to revisit the social meaning of sports competition. No doubt, even if by the most optimistic account the pandemic cools down by May and June, by July and August every affected nation will still be reeling from the collective trauma of social distancing. Travel, entertainment, hospitality – all niche sectors to global sports will be barely awake from a months-long deep coma. How will this fare with Japan’s brand, reputation, and the “wow” buzz that Japan expects to gain from the event?

Japan is facing two clear choices: either stay happy with the hard-earned reputation of organizing global events at the cost of a financial loss, or risk losing both. Unlike a half-full glass as a metaphor for positive spirit, a half-full stadium will not make Japan proud, but become a haunting image that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will wish does not exist in the meme trafficking of the Internet.

To avoid such a nightmare, Japan is better off asking the IOC to cancel the event or at least postpone it as far as it can, today, right now.

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Anis Rahman

Anis Rahman is a Lecturer in Communication at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. He researches geopolitics and disinformation, South Asian media and cultures, the Chinese New Silk Road and its impacts on global communications networks and infrastructures. Email: abur@sfu.ca.

Nancy Snow

Nancy Snow is Walt Disney Chair in Global Media and Communication at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University. She is also a Professor Emeritus of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and holds a special faculty appointment as Pax Mundi (Distinguished) Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. In spring 2020 she is teaching “Public Diplomacy & Pandemic: The Search for Trust and Community in Times of Chaos” in the Schwarzman Scholars Program....