The Business Of Sports: Japan bows to IOC as Games to go ahead with few fans

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 28, 2021 - July 04, 2021.
The Business Of Sports: Japan bows to IOC as Games to go ahead with few fans
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As if we ever had doubts. Less than a month from the opening ceremony with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisting that “only Armageddon” stood between the Games and the start line, the show that the hosts do not want finally gets the green light. Last week’s decision to allow up to 10,000 domestic fans — or 50% of venue capacity — to attend was seen as Japan bowing to the inevitable.

Recent polls showed support for staging them is rising — up from a derisory 14% from last month to 34% on June 21. But with the majority of people still against it, Tokyo in “quasi-emergency” mode, and Japan’s scientists warning of dire consequences, there can no longer be any doubt that it is IaOC and not the government that is calling the shots.

Backed into a corner in this marriage of inconvenience, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga finds himself in a no-win situation. The Olympics are not his baby anyway — hosting them was how predecessor Shinzo Abe hoped to rejuvenate a sluggish economy. But it is Suga who has been landed with Hobson’s choice: Cancel and lose the US$15 billion (RM62.5 billion) already spent and unimaginable loss of face or risk the health of the nation.

If the government has been dithering, IOC has been steadfast, all along insisting the show must go on — and telling us how priorities have changed. A hundred and twenty-five years after Pierre de Coubertin famously declared the games were all about “taking part”, the delayed, disrupted and already-diminished 2021 edition seems about merely taking place.

If they did not, the lawyers would be the ones on the podium. “Tokyo could be in breach of the host city contract if they refuse to host the Games,” says Leon Farr, a senior associate at Onside Law, a London-based firm specialising in sports. “In theory, IOC could sue Tokyo for its losses, including any claims IOC receives from Olympics broadcasters and sponsors who didn’t get what they paid for. Those claims could run into billions of dollars.”

Estimates suggest that cancellation would cost IOC up to US$4 billion in broadcasting rights alone. Add on sponsorship and you are talking 91% of its income. The New England Journal of Medicine noted drily that IOC’s determination to proceed “is not informed by the best scientific evidence”. The inconvenient truth is they have ignored it.

Like house guests who have outstayed their welcome, IOC is rearranging the furniture and choosing the menu, yet still expects the hosts to pay the bills and carry the can. As Ryu Homma, author and former advertising agency executive, told Japan Today: “If it turns out there is a surge in coronavirus patients and it becomes a catastrophe, that’s not the responsibility of IOC. It’s the Japanese government that will be stuck with the responsibility.”

Jules Boykoff, author of NOlympians and Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, was even more blunt in saying: “The IOC has long been a profit-gobbling cartel, and one of the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructures in the world.”

Only a week ago, a team of scientists led by Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organization (WHO) official, warned of the risks if the Games went ahead with spectators. The group, which included members of the government’s own advisory panel, reported: “In the scale and the interest they arouse, the Games are in a different dimension from ordinary sporting events.

“On top of that, the Games overlap with summer holidays, so there is a risk of an increase in infection and pressure on medical services, at a time when the flow of people, and interpersonal contact, are increasing. Holding the Games without spectators is advisable, as the risk of infection within the venues will then be low.”

Unfortunately for the safety-first merchants, this report coincided with Suga’s return from the G7 summit in the UK having resolved to stage the Games with fans. After seeing the uplifting effect even small numbers of spectators have had on football matches around the world, it is understandable that the beleaguered hosts want a feel-good factor to tap into.

But it is also a sign that the government is wearily resigned to the Olympics being unstoppable. It can be argued that, as most of the money has already been spent — US$15 billion before the turn of the year — it is prudent to insure against being sued for even more, not to mention avoiding the humiliation of failing to deliver the Games.

As for the pandemic, Japan has largely kept the outbreak under control with under 15,000 deaths in a population of 126 million. When it comes to rolling out the vaccine, however, it is the slowest of any developed nation, with just 6.5% people having had two doses. It is almost a reverse of what has happened in the West.

Since Covid-19 began, no country has had to deal with an influx of anything like 100,000 people, which is always going to test the strictest of defences. And, sadly, there is general acceptance that the essence of Olympism will be lost if, in the ultimate of sporting festivals, there are no festivities.

Besides the understandable demand that all visitors be vaccinated, the hosts have a few draconian house rules in store when they arrive. Competitors will be confined to the Olympic Village, and they and journalists will be subjected to a GPS tracking system that will soon find them if they stray off the approved track.

Good luck with that and 100,000 inquisitive interlopers.

The Japanese were brilliant hosts of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and had been looking forward to showing their hospitality on an even bigger scale. The hope is that the pandemic will not turn those helpful volunteers into overzealous personal sheriffs.

Another doubt is about the atmosphere that may be hard to create if spectators are gagged. Small crowds have worked in football because, overjoyed to be back, the few have made up for the many 

by celebrating their new-found freedom in song, chants and roars of approval or otherwise.

At the Olympics, fans will have to wear masks and must not cheer or even raise their voices. The Games are not tribal, anyway, but such constraints risk turning the main stadium into a US$1 billion morgue and a blazing spectacle into silent monochrome.

IOC was desperate to protect the brand, but the danger is that the medicine being prescribed may deliver an inferior Olympics. And if it turns out to be “slower, lower, weaker”, IOC will be damaged as well as the hosts.

Bob Holmes is a long-time sportswriter specialising in football

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