The Olympic Games during Covid-19: What is at stake for Toyko?

19 février 2021
Interview with Jules Boykoff, author of four books on the Olympic Games, conducted by Estelle E. Brun, research associate at IRIS

Interview with Jules Boykoff, author of four books on the Olympic Games, most recently NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Beyond (Fernwood 2020) and Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics (Verso 2016). His work has appeared in academic journals like the International Review for the Sociology of SportSociology of Sport Journal, and the International Journal of the History of Sport and outlets like the New York TimesThe Nation, and Asahi Shimbun. He teaches political science at Pacific University, USA. Conducted by Estelle E. Brun, research associate at IRIS.

When Tokyo won their bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2013, no one could have foreseen the current impact of Covid-19 on international sport. In general, and putting the pandemic aside, what are some benefits for cities like Tokyo or Paris to host the Olympic Games

Because the Olympic Games have become a massive economic juggernaut, with loads of money churning through the system, a key question emerges: For whom do the Olympics boom? Academic researchers have consistently found that the Olympics tend to benefit well-connected political and economic elites in the host city and wider host country – as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its corporate partners – rather than working-class people. In the glossy bid documents put forth by aspiring Olympic cities, everyday people in are promised all sorts of things, but the reality is quite different.

One benefit for cities hosting the Olympics, if perhaps a counterintuitive one, is that the Games can jumpstart political activism in the host city, pushing into motion political movements that challenge the negative externalities that the Games often bring – such as gentrification, the militarisation of the public sphere, and overspending. So, in a sense, the Olympics can invigorate democratic practice in the host city, even if that is not necessarily a stated goal. In addition, for many people the Olympics bring a certain ‘feel-good factor’ to the city. It’s fleeting, but for many it’s very real. I lived in England before and during the London 2012 Summer Games and sometimes I could feel the excitement from the general population while riding on the Tube. I also lived in Rio before and during the 2016 Olympics and watched the opening ceremony with a group of Brazilian friends who were genuinely moved. Some of them were quite critical of the Olympics, but they were still able to wring some joy from it at times, even if it was an ephemeral sentiment.

The International Olympic Committee is currently deciding upon the next steps to take regarding the 2020 Summer Olympics, meant to be hosted by Tokyo last year and postponed to the summer of 2021. When making these decisions, what will it be considering?

Well, hopefully public health will be front and centre in the decision-making process – not just the health of Olympic athletes and those involved in staging the Games, but the wider public health in the host city and country. Covid-19 is no joke, especially these new variants that appear to be much more contagious. In recent weeks, coronavirus rates have increased dramatically in Japan. Tokyo and numerous other areas of the country are living under an official state of emergency, which was recently extended through early March. Japan’s medical system is operating under extreme pressure, and so for healthcare workers, the prospect of hosting the Games during such a moment is harrowing. The president of the Japan Medical Association recently told reporters that it would be “impossible” to admit to hospital any international visitors who attended the Tokyo Olympics and contracted the coronavirus because of the current, sky-high hospital occupancy rates. The Tokyo Medical Association is expected to provide around 3,500 medical staff to volunteer at the Games, but that is looking increasingly difficult. In fact, the Director of the Tokyo Medical Association, Satoru Arai, even said, “No matter how I look at it, it’s impossible.”

Under such conditions, it is not surprising that around 80% of the population in Japan are keen to either cancel or further postpone the Tokyo Olympics. Holding an optional sport spectacle during a pandemic is – quite understandably – not an especially appealing prospect. Whether Olympic organisers will take public opinion into consideration is an open question.

Of course, the money factor will also be a consideration. The Summer Olympics are the IOC’s golden cash spigot. Almost three-quarters of the IOC’s revenues derive from broadcaster rights, so there is a built-in incentive to press ahead with the Games, even if it’s a scaled-back version. A spectator-less, made-for-TV event would still mean that broadcaster funds would flow into IOC coffers. Another 18% of the IOC’s revenues come from corporate sponsors. Under the made-for-TV scenario, those sponsors would still be able to leverage value from their investments, even if they were forced to forgo the hobnobbing that they would otherwise enjoy at the Games themselves. Both local Tokyo organisers and the IOC reportedly have hefty insurance policies in place, but still, the financial losses would be significant. We’d be kidding ourselves if we pretended financial factors were not under consideration as organisers decide how to proceed, even if organisers might not be keen to acknowledge that publicly.

According to the local organising committee, the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games caused the original budget to increase by 22%, with new expenses amounting to $12.6 billion. What are the economic and political ramifications of the first postponement of the Games? What would they be, if they were to be further postponed or cancelled?

In the twenty-first century, the economic stakes are sky-high for Olympic host cities. When Tokyo postponed in 2020, it had already plunged billions more than intended into the Olympic project. During the bid phase of the Tokyo Games, the stated price tag was $7.3 billion, but according to an audit carried out by the Japanese government, the Olympics actually cost more than $26 billion. Estimates from Japanese media suggest that postponement will add another $2 to $6 billion in costs. If the past is prologue, we might expect that number to climb even more. One peer-reviewed study from the University of Oxford found that, with cost overruns in excess of 200%, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were, at least in one sense, already the most expensive Summer Games ever.

But the Olympics bring more than cost overruns. The Tokyo Games’ coronavirus-induced delay affords an opportunity to slow down and think about the bigger-picture troubles plaguing the Games and how they might be meaningfully addressed. Even in the best of times, the Olympics bring debt, displacement, greenwashing, and the militarisation of the public sphere. Although all these dynamics are unfolding in Tokyo, they are not merely Tokyo problems—they are Olympic problems that tend to arise in host city after host city, regardless of geography.

The injustices associated with the Olympics have inspired anti-Games groups to pop up across the globe. In Tokyo, two groups have led the way – Hangorin No Kai and Okotowalink. Hangorin No Kai translates to “Anti-Olympics Group” and it has engaged in numerous protests in the years leading up to the Tokyo Games. The group emerged in 2013 and has a firm core of active members, with numbers climbing for public protests and street actions. Okotowalink, which roughly translates to “No Thanks Olympics 2020,” is packed with academics and researchers who double as political organisers. In July 2019, these groups hosted the inaugural transnational anti-Olympics summit. The group NOlympics LA, which emerged out of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to challenge the Olympics slated for 2028 in LA, sent the largest contingent to the summit. There were also Games critics on hand from Pyeongchang, Seoul, Rio, London, and Paris as well as potential host cities like Jakarta. An enlivened anti-Olympics movement may well be one of the most prominent legacies of the ‘Tokyo 2020’ Games, if a wholly inadvertent one.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.

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