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Japan presses ahead with its great Olympics gamble

Last Friday, in a shotgun marriage between rising Covid-19 infection numbers and the imminent delivery of the Olympic Games, the Japanese government prolonged its state of emergency for Tokyo and other regions until the end of the month.

Under the extended decree, businesses will operate under fuzzily contrived restrictions and the languid vaccination programme will continue to frustrate a nation eager to work and mingle safely. Citizens of the world’s most populous city will be called upon not to make any “unnecessary” trips beyond their homes. For a government and a people inviting the world’s athletes to run, jump and sweat in Tokyo less than 11 weeks from now, a lot hinges on that word.

Since the pandemic took hold last year, Japan’s government has in many ways left the question of what constitutes “unnecessary” to the interpretation of individual people and the private sector. In the early, more terrifying days of the crisis, it correctly (and successfully) trusted that the sternest reading would be applied, creating a rapid snap to work-from-home policies and sharp delineations between, for example, food shopping and hat shopping.

Those lines have since blurred. The government’s current efforts involve an attempt to reassert the old interpretation in the hope that it brings the infection numbers down for long enough to recoup Japan’s reputation for having the disease under control. If it is lucky, that may just happen before tens of thousands of athletes and their teams are ushered through immigration. 

The problem — and, arguably, one of the reasons the new state of emergency is not working as well as its predecessors — lies paradoxically in the preparations for the Olympics. The determination to press ahead comes with the implication that these games, and all the contortions required to make them happen safely, fall unambiguously under “necessary”.

The public, accosted with daily admonishment from loudspeakers in the streets, must agonise over whether a child’s picnic or trip to the bookshop is, strictly speaking, necessary. The government appears to have had no such difficulty defining simultaneous tournaments of dressage, surfing and ping-pong as vital activities. Everyone, regardless of their enthusiasm for the event itself, can see problems in that.

Three closely related ones stand out. The first is that, by insisting on the necessity of holding the Olympics in a pandemic, Japan is leaning heavily on the notion that its role as host is scripted by both duty and destiny. That idea, potent in the right hands, was brilliantly exploited by the advertising giant Dentsu to convince Japanese companies to part with $3.1bn in Olympic sponsorship cash. But public reserves of enthusiasm are low after a year of being pushed around by an invisible fiend.

Could a charismatic Japanese leader persuade the population, 97 per cent of whom remains unvaccinated, that it is their duty to absorb the risks of the event, rather than that of a supranational organisation like the International Olympic Committee?

Could they persuade hundreds of doctors and nurses that their skills are best deployed serving the games rather than the wider public? Perhaps, but it would take a great deal more vim and salesmanship than Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister, appears able or willing to muster. 

The second issue is that the government risks creating a credibility deficit that could persist long after the torch has moved on and the political priority switches back to completing the vaccination of the world’s oldest population. Leaderships everywhere have been forced by this pandemic to make exceptionally difficult triage decisions. Japan’s leaders risk spending future months and years trying to convince voters that, whatever it may have looked like, they were always more important than water polo and the pole vault.

But the third and perhaps most demoralising problem with treating the games as something necessary is that they become just that: a joyless chore rather than the soaring festival of achievement, ambition and togetherness the Olympics can be, at their best. The language of the preparations — with their solemn commitments to safety, the high likelihood of no live spectators and the onerous limitations on athletes visiting one of the world’s most exciting cities — feels redacted of any explanation of how all this is going to be enjoyable. 

Beyond the ferocious difficulties of organisation, the decision to hold the games at this time makes a staggering demand on the patience, bravery and public-spiritedness of Tokyo and Japan. Without any clear commitment to fun — and the fact that this is all happening precisely because humanity thrives on the unnecessary — that demand may prove excessive.

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