- Virus? What virus? Japanese Olympic and government officials too busy planning for the Games to worry about the plague on their doorstep
- Shortcomings brought squarely into focus when influential IOC executive admitted they were very worried about the coronavirus
Some days three or four messages arrive in the inbox, other days one or two. But every day, without fail, there is an email with a corresponding press release from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic press office and it has been that way for nearly two years. Naturally, the sheer volume of messages invites the mundane.
Over the last month alone, there were a couple of hundred words detailing how "for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, hydrogen will be used to power both the Olympic and Paralympic cauldrons". A few hundred more words were on the official Games mascots visiting six cities in Europe to promote the 'Make the Beat!' cheering project, as well as thousands upon thousands of words to extol the virtues of the wonderfully benign corporate partners. All of it, presumably, newsworthy.
But there was nothing whatsoever that even remotely addressed the elephant in the room; what steps were organisers taking to ensure the safety of over 11,000 athletes and support staff, not to mention the 10 million visitors expected to flow into Tokyo, during the Games (July 24"August 9) since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus "a public health emergency of international concern" one month ago?
After all, the Games were only 150 days away and there were over 700 passengers on a cruise ship in nearby Yokohama harbour who had just contacted the virus during their forced Japanese quarantine.
Clearly though, the local organising committee took their lead from the government, whose attitude has been that it may be happening on our doorstep, but it's not happening in our universe.
All of the Japanese government's shortcomings were brought squarely into focus this week when an influential International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive admitted that they were very, very worried. According to Dick Pound, there is no more than a two to three-month window to decide the fate of Tokyo 2020.
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"In around that time, I'd say folks are going to have to ask: 'Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?'", Pound told Associated Press.
Almost on cue, the Japanese government seemed to finally notice, particularly since their beloved Olympics were imperilled. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been under non-stop criticism for his cavalier attitude towards the virus, immediately announced that he will close all the schools in the country from Monday to the beginning of April.
"Efforts have been made to prevent the spread of infection among children in each region, and these one or two weeks will be an extremely critical period," Abe told a meeting of key Cabinet ministers. "The government attaches the top priority to the health and safety of children, among others."
But the truth is nobody, not even his cabinet ministers, believes a word Abe says. Japan, much like Hong Kong, is a very sick administrative creature right now. Lack of accountability has brought a dearth of leadership at a time when it is most desperately needed. There is very little reason for the world to trust that Japan can properly handle millions of global visitors this summer when they failed miserably in dealing with a few thousand quarantined passengers on a cruise ship.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, wrote a scathing takedown of Abe and his government in The New York Times this week. "The Japanese government and bureaucracy is notoriously dominated by a culture of "kotonakare shugi" (literally, "no-problem-ism"),' he wrote, "which prioritises stability and conformity, and shuns anything that might rock the institutional boat. Sound the alarm about an impending crisis and you might be blamed for causing it."
And there in a nutshell is the IOC's quandary. They gave the 2020 Games to Tokyo because Abe assured them that Japan "would be a steady pair of hands". After the organisational nightmare that was Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Japanese efficiency seemed like manna from heaven for the IOC. No wonder both Olympic officials and the global community have been stunned by their egregiously inefficient handling of events over the last month.
Abe also told the IOC that the hosting of the 2020 Olympics would be the catalyst for the ushering in of a new transparent Japan where much-needed reform would propel the country forward. He said it all with a straight face as well.
The simple truth is the Games will happen in Japan or they will not happen at all. And while no one knows what the world will look like on July 24 when the lights, hopefully, come up on the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games, one thing is certain; the "new" Japan will still be very much the old Japan.
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