Japan Considers Whether To Delay Summer Olympic Games

Mar 23, 2020
Originally published on March 23, 2020 6:51 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Japan has admitted the obvious - it must consider postponing this summer's Tokyo Olympics. Any such decision would be painful, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Speaking before parliament Monday morning, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacted to the International Olympic Committee's decision on Sunday to consider alternative scenarios, including postponing the games. The IOC added that the option of cancellation is not on the table and that it will decide in four weeks' time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "This decision by the IOC is in line with what I have said about holding the games in their entirety," he said. "In case this becomes difficult, in order to make the athletes our top priority, we may have no choice but to decide to postpone the games."

While not unexpected, Abe's admission is a dramatic reversal after weeks in which the IOC and Japanese organizers had doggedly insisted that no plan B was necessary. Last week, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike put it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YURIKO KOIKE: (Through interpreter) As for the Tokyo government, there is no way that we would cancel it or hold it without spectators.

KUHN: In an interview before Abe's remarks, sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi said that while officials claim cancellation is unthinkable, they've no doubt thought it already.

NOBUYA KOBAYASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "The government surely recognizes the possibility of cancellation," he says. "But they can never admit it. They can only stick to their position that the games will go ahead."

Japan now has over 1,800 COVID-19 cases. It has not seen an explosion of new cases, but it's testing fewer than 1,200 people a day, or about one-sixth of its capacity. Dr. Masahiro Kami, chairman of the Tokyo-based nonprofit Medical Governance Research Institute, says that when Japan does begin mass testing, it could find a hundred thousand cases.

MASAHIRO KAMI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Even now, it seems that the number of cases has been kept low," he says. "And the health ministry does not want to see case numbers rise beyond their control."

Kami says there's no evidence that the government is intentionally suppressing case numbers in order to keep the Olympics, but the Japanese public is skeptical about the game's prospects. Two recent Japanese media surveys found that most respondents think that the games will not or should not be held on schedule. Sports journalist Kobayashi hopes that the current crisis will lead to the national conversation that Japan never had.

KOBAYASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Now that we face cancellation of the Olympics," he says, "we need to have a rational, cool-headed discussion about why on Earth we are hosting the games."

He says his hope is that Japanese people will rethink the meaning of the Olympics and reclaim them from powerful political and business interests.

Japan is plowing an estimated $28 billion into preparation for the games, while Japanese corporations spend billions more on sponsorship, marketing and advertising. But Kobayashi is concerned that in the end, the fate of the games may largely lie in the hands of the IOC.

KOBAYASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I would like to see more autonomy for Japan's sports community," he says. "But so far, I'm not seeing it."

He notes that Tokyo forfeited the 1940 Olympics of its own accord on the eve of World War II. This time, he says, the decision may not be Tokyo's to make.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "ALYTH (NUAGE REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.