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Here We Go Again

The Tokyo Olympics are already a COVID-19 dumpster fire

July 08, 2021


If you haven't heard Thursday's news out of Tokyo, it's bad: No fans.

As in, no fans at all for the summer Olympics, which have already been delayed a year due to COVID, and will now be played in empty venues due to the fact that the virus is ravaging Japan to such a degree that they've declared a state of emergency. It's set to run from July 12 through Aug. 22, which overlaps totally with the Olympics, so the "no spectator" edict was exactly what you'd expect as a follow-up. Before this, international fans were banned, and a limit of 10,000 domestic spectators per event was established. Now? Nothing.

In a lot of ways, this is on Japan for its ongoing display of truly historical mismanagement. If you think Americans are bad at getting vaccines, consider the fact that Japan just reached the 20% threshold, and only made it there because of a huge last-minute push related to the Olympics; back in May, it was sitting around 1.6%. Among what we'd consider "rich" nations, this is strikingly poor, as the Washington Post illustrated:

A nation famed for first-world logistical competence is running dead last among the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members, the club of wealthy nations. This dismal performance isn’t just imperiling the Olympics — or the world’s third-biggest economy. It’s challenging basic notions about whether Japan can change at all.

“Japan’s 1.6 percent rate of vaccination puts it on par with Myanmar, a failed state — not exactly a ringing endorsement of Tokyo’s shambolic rollout,” quips longtime Tokyo resident Jeff Kingston, head of Asia studies at Temple University’s local campus. “This is an own goal of epic proportions.”

Why did that happen? A few reasons. It's partly because leadership seemed to be waiting on a homegrown vaccine which never emerged, partly because it's very hard to get a foreign vaccine approved there, partly because it wasn't a big problem there at first, and partly because just like America, they've got their own anti-vaxxers. Even the torch relays leading up to the games were a nightmare, with COVID infections canceling several events.

The bigger question, of why the country couldn't get its s*** together before the Olympics, is basically answered by a story of institutional failure. Meanwhile, infections are rising, and the delta variant has begun to sweep across the country. There aren't a ton of new cases daily—2,000, compared to 32,000 daily in the U.K., which is still hosting this weekend's Euro 2020 final—but those new cases are way more dangerous because so many are unvaccinated. Hence the state of emergency.

To sit idly by like this with the Olympics looming is a case of almost unbelievable bureaucratic and political failure. And, yes, it's a complete bummer. This paragraph from WaPo nicely sums up how just about everyone is feeling ahead of the Olympics:

It is already gearing up to be a distinctly joyless event for the Japanese people, with spectators told not to shout or cheer, to wear masks, to go straight home after events without even pausing to chat outside venues, and with most bars and restaurants closed in the evening anyway. In the end, most fans will have to be satisfied with watching it on television.

Yikes. Along with all of this, the weather is going to be brutally hot—it's being staged in the thick of summer in order to get the most money possible out of U.S. viewership—and now the government has to deal with almost a million refund requests from fans who bought tickets. Finally, worst of all, this could have been postponed two years instead of one, but it seems like former PM Shinzo Abe wanted to be able to oversee the Games himself, and wasn't sure he'd be around in 2022 . . . only to have to step down last summer anyway. (Oh, and for good measure: there are rampant allegations of sexism among Japanese Olympic officials.)

But all of that said . . . yes, at this point, after all the disastrous twists and turns, Japan is probably making the right call to ban spectators. It's a no-brainer that the Games will go on at this point, even if that's foolhardy, and despite the fact that the whole spectacle is a huge downer, they're doing the right thing (albeit wayyyyy too late) in order to mitigate further damage.

So why does it feel like the bad news has only begun? The "fun" starts on July 23, and at this point the best possible outcome is simply to get the whole thing finished without any serious disaster. Let the Games begin . . . and please, please, let them end.