But the Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay in Fukushima was closed to the public on Thursday, as members of Japan’s women’s football team prepared to kick off the flame’s 121-day domestic journey to Tokyo.
With costs and logistical challenges mounting amid the pandemic, public support for the blockbuster sporting event has fallen to an all-time low in Japan. Earlier this year, a poll by public broadcaster NHK showed 77% of those surveyed want the Tokyo Games either canceled or postponed further.
As the pandemic continues to roil the world and organizers grapple with the complexities of holding the mega sporting event later than planned, many are asking if the Olympics have lost their luster.
But it would be hard to find an example of an Olympic Games free from political, economic or cultural scandal, according to Lee Jung-woo, an expert on sports diplomacy and international relations at the University of Edinburgh.
Lee cites as examples the Nazi propaganda-tarnished 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Mexico City in 1968, when the Games followed a military massacre of unarmed civilians protesting against the event being held there.
Another issue is that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who resigned in August — initially intended to use the Olympics as a platform to build his reelection campaign, tainting the public perception of the Games from the start, according to Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School in France.
“I don’t think there was ever any popular consensus or agreement across Japan that the country needed to host the Olympic Games,”‘ he said.
In Fukushima, feelings toward the Olympics are mixed.
The relay is a moment of personal triumph for Takayuki Ueno, 46, a torchbearer from Minamisoma city whose 8-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son, and parents died in the 2011 tsunami. “I am going to run with a smile, so that my parents and children that I lost won’t worry about me,” he said.
High school student, Ryoji Sakuma, was only able to return to Katsurao village three years ago when evacuation orders lifted. The 16-year-old torchbearer helps out on his family’s dairy farm and said he wanted to show the world how much Fukushima had recovered, and that, despite rumors, its produce is safe to eat.
But Saki Ookawara, spokeswoman for an organization that advocates for evacuees displaced by the nuclear meltdown, said the government is using the Olympics as a political tool to show Japan has overcome repercussions of the triple disaster, when that is not strictly the case.
Although many communities have rebuilt, there are as many as 35,703 nuclear evacuees still unable to return to their homes in Fukushima prefecture as of this month, according to the local government. “I don’t understand why Japan is hosting an Olympics when the nuclear disaster has not been fully resolved,” said Ookawara.
Spotlight on Japan
The entire symbolism of the Olympics and torch relay has changed amid the pandemic, according to Barbara Holthus, deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies.
“The original idea for Tokyo was to show the world how cool Japan is — it was an opportunity for the country to reimagine itself and to come together as one. Forty million visitors were expected to visit Japan in 2020 to give the country an economic boost — but none of that is happening. The Olympics are failing in all instances,” said Holthus.
Pulling off the world’s most complex sporting event, involving more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries who must be kept safe, will also be no easy feat.
Organizers are now racing to determine how Tokyo can stage the event safely, especially considering the capital only lifted its third state of emergency on Monday following a third wave of infections.
Authorities must figure out how to protect not only athletes, but also citizens of the world’s most populous metropolitan area, a daunting task considering Japan’s huge elderly population and its slower-than-expected rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
Ayako Kajiwara, a nurse who works in a hospital near Tokyo, said she hoped vaccinations would be sped up in the country to better protect the population. “Some people in Japan think the Games should be canceled (but) others have already bought tickets for events,” she said.
“For me, the Olympics represents the idea of the world coming together and I’d like to have some hope. I worry what will happen if it doesn’t go ahead as the taxpayers might bear the burden,” she added.
As Tokyo 2020 will be the first mega sporting event held during the pandemic, the health and safety measures implemented — whether successful or not — could serve as useful markers for future international sporting competitions.
“In that sense, Tokyo’s anti-coronavirus programme would be marked as a long-lasting legacy of this Olympic Games,” said Lee.
The most successful Games are those designed to leave behind a positive legacy, according to Chadwick, the sports business expert.
Similarly, nine years after hosting the 2012 Olympics, London has managed to draw business and visitors to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park — a former post-industrial district in the east of the British capital.
Lee, the sports diplomacy expert, said the 2024 Summer Games in Paris followed by the Los Angeles Games in 2028 show Western democracies still want to host the Olympics.
However, as host countries and their populations factor in the high economic and environmental costs of the Olympics, it is authoritarian regimes that have embraced the Games as a soft-power tool.
“Non-liberal emerging powers tend to stage the Olympics at all costs in order to impress world audiences,” said Lee.
In 2019, the IOC mapped out new rules that would require future bidders for Olympic host city to win a referendum at home before entering the race.
That move aimed to cut back on expensive bidding races and prevent wasteful “white-elephant” projects that cost a fortune to build but serve little purpose in the long run.
The rule changes may also pave the way for smaller cities to join the bidding for host city, Lee said.
The IOC’s choice of Brisbane, provincial capital of Australia’s Queensland, as “preferred host” for the 2032 Summer Games, shows the direction of the Olympics has already shifted, according to Lee.
Lee said the IOC picked Brisbane because the city had already hosted the 2018 Commonwealth Games jointly with the Gold Coast, also in Queensland. “This means that Brisbane does not have to build new sporting facilities and athlete villages. This would make the Olympic Games in Brisbane a more sustainable choice than any other candidate cities for the 2032 Olympics,” Lee said.
Additionally, Australia is one of the few Covid-safe nations in the world now, and this situation may have added a more competitive edge to Brisbane’s Olympic campaign, he said.
Back near Tokyo, Kajiwara, the nurse, said last year she applied for a lottery, which covered 10 sports such as basketball, soccer, rhythmic gymnastics and track. She got a coveted ticket to watch the men’s 100-meter final. She just hopes she can still go.
CNN’s James Griffiths, Selina Wang and Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report from Hong Kong and Tokyo.