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Tens of thousands of athletes and officials are about to descend on Tokyo as the city prepares to host the 32nd Olympic games. But with Covid-19 cases surging in Japan, health experts and the majority of the Japanese public are opposed to the event being held at all. Today, Kieran Pender on the vested interests behind this pandemic Olympics.

The world’s first pandemic games

Read Transcript

Tens of thousands of athletes and officials are about to descend on Tokyo as the city prepares to host the 32nd Olympic games. 

But with Covid-19 cases surging in Japan, health experts and the majority of the Japanese public are opposed to the event being held at all. 

So, why are the Olympic Games going ahead? 

Today, sports writer Kieran Pender on the institution, and the vested interests, behind this pandemic Olympics. 

 

Guest: Sports writer Kieran Pender.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Tens of thousands of athletes and officials are about to descend on Tokyo, as the city prepares to host the 32nd Olympic games. 

 

But with Covid-19 cases surging in Japan, health experts and the majority of the Japanese public are opposed to the event being held at all. 

 

So, why are the Olympic Games going ahead? 

 

Today, sports writer Kieran Pender on the institution - and the vested interests - behind this pandemic Olympics. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Kieran, the Olympics were actually supposed to be held last year in 2020, but they were postponed as a result of the pandemic. I was wondering, can you take me back and tell me about the decision to actually award Tokyo the Games, and the sorts of preparations that were going on in Japan in the lead up to what was supposed to be the 2020 event? 

 

KIERAN:

Tokyo has a long and not always fantastic history with the Olympics. They bid and were successful for the 1940 Games. But then obviously the Second World War broke out and they lost the Games. 

 

They then bid and were unsuccessful in 1960 and then ultimately hosted the 1964 games. They were then back at it in 2016, when Rio hosted and lost that bid and had another go for 2020. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Olympic Committee Member #1: 

“The international olympic committee has the honor of announcing that the Games of the 32nd Olympiad in 2020 are awarded to the city of…”

 

KIERAN:

And they won that in 2013. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Olympic Committee Member #1: 

"Tokyo!”

 

KIERAN:

And it was sort of pitched as rebuild from the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that devastated parts of Japan. So it had a sort of feel-good rebuilding story. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Olympic Committee Member #2: 

“Congratulations Tokyo, the world will be looking at you seven years from now.”

 

KIERAN:

Japan was really looking forward to these games. All of the preparations were well underway. And then, you know, across the sea, Covid began to spread, soon spread all around the world, and suddenly the games were in doubt. 

 

As the pandemic worsened, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government were insistent that the Games were going to go ahead. 

 

And it took really the withdrawal of Canada and Australia in mid March last year, to force their hand. So a number of big countries began to withdraw and said it's just not possible that these Games are going to go ahead by July of 2020. And then within 24 hours, it had decided in conjunction with the Japanese government to postpone the Games. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“The 2020 summer Olympic Games scheduled to open in Tokyo on July the 24th have now been postponed...”

 

KIERAN:

That was a huge decision. The Olympics have never been cancelled in the modern games since they began at the turn of last century, other than for world wars. And yet, suddenly the games were off. And, of course, entirely understandably given the circumstances. 

 

But they made the fortuitous or perhaps troubling decision to postpone only by a year. At the time, it wasn't entirely clear how the pandemic would pan out, and they were hopeful that within a year things would be back on track. But that is meant for the last year, year and a half, we've just had this countdown on to the first Covid Games. 

 

RUBY:

And so that year is almost up now. And the Olympics that were supposed to be held in 2020, they're scheduled to be held next month in Tokyo. But the pandemic itself is far from over, particularly in Japan. So how is it all looking at the moment? 

 

KIERAN:

Japan has done relatively well, in terms of managing Covid-19 compared to the rest of the world. You know, Japan's had about three quarters of a million cases and about 15,000 deaths, which for a population of 126 million, you know, compares very favourably to the rest of the world. And by and large, they've managed to close down their borders and maintain spread. And that's even been with minimal lockdowns.

 

But in recent months, as Tokyo 2021 approaches, we've seen a new wave of cases in Tokyo and in Japan more generally. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:  

“growing concerns in Japan that Coronavirus variants could be driving a new fourth wave in the country. The variants appear to be more infectious.”

 

KIERAN:

They've been in a new state of emergency. At the peak of this latest wave, we've had about a thousand Covid cases a day in Tokyo.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3:  

“...very clear that infection rates are still growing here in Tokyo. And so, really, the government has no other option, given that we're so close to the Olympics” 

 

KIERAN:

And that's, as a result of the state of emergency, dropped down now to about three or four hundred cases a day in Tokyo. And it's sort of heading downwards. But we have the Olympics beginning in four weeks’ time. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4: 

“Prime Minister Yoshiro So insists that the games will go ahead in Tokyo as scheduled.”

 

KIERAN:

And so we're still going to have Covid-19 circulating in the community in Tokyo. Just as you know, thousands and thousands of athletes arrive. We've got 11,000 Olympians due to arrive in the coming weeks. We've got about 60,000 others, you know, media, you know, IOC and National Olympic Committee officials, coaches, staff, et cetera, all descending from literally every corner of the world on Tokyo. And in some cases, bringing with them Covid-19. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and so what are we hearing then from public health experts about whether the Olympics should be held in an environment like this? 

 

KIERAN:

The Japanese public and Japanese medical experts do not want the Games to go ahead. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #5: 

“These people marching through the streets of Tokyo are not celebrating the coming Olympics. But demanding it be stopped.”

 

Archival Tape -- Protests in Japan

 

KIERAN:

I think that's fairly emphatic from most people in Japan. 

 

Archival Tape -- Protests in Japan

 

KIERAN:

Opinion polling, which has been conducted fairly regularly, continues to show less and less support for the games. Happening now, it's up to 83%. So four in five Japanese people don't want the games to happen. That's been echoed by medical advice. 

 

And yet onwards we head. And as I said, in four weeks time, we're all heading to Tokyo. 

 

RUBY:

Mm. So that opposition then, that we're seeing from people in Japan, is it likely to have any impact at all on the games going ahead? Or is this a done deal at this point? 

 

KIERAN:

I think the pandemic has showed that we should never say never, but certainly with four weeks to go, it seems very, very likely that the games will go ahead. I think it's unimaginable at this point that they'll be cancelled, although, again, you know, never say never. 

 

But one of the main issues for the local organising committee and the Japanese government is they just don't really have any choice. The host city contract gives all of the power to the International Olympic Committee and none of the power to the Japanese government. So if Japan or the Tokyo government were to unilaterally cancel the Games, they would be facing a lawsuit from the IOC to the tune of five or six billion dollars. 

 

And I think that really points to larger questions, to the ongoing sort of status of the Olympics and the fact that we've got this unaccountable sporting organisation in Switzerland, you know, having this influence over elected sovereign governments. 

 

RUBY:

We'll be back after this. 

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

RUBY:

Kieran, you’ve said the International Olympic Committee is ultimately the body who decides whether the Olympics will go ahead or not. Can you tell me a bit more about who makes up the IOC?

 

KIERAN:

The IOC is a nominally a non-profit organisation based in Switzerland consisting of all of the National Olympic Committees around the world. But over the years, it's really morphed from a feel good sporting organisation to a multibillion dollar media behemoth. About three quarters of IOC revenue comes from TV rights. You know, the latest TV deal between the IOC and NBC, which is a broadcaster in the US, was about 10 or 11 billion Australian dollars for about a 12 year period. So we're talking huge amounts of money. 

 

Now, most of that is then in turn distributed to National Olympic Committees and run on various projects. But it just has this cycle that the Games have to go ahead because the hole that would be punched in the IOC’s bank balance would be astronomical. You know, it would be multi-billion dollars in the hole if if they had to cancel,which is why the IOC is taking this attitude of really ‘Tokyo or bust’. 

 

A senior IOC official, Dick Pound, said the Games are going ahead unless there's Armageddon. And to be honest, given the IOC's attitude, I think even if there was Armageddon, the IOC would still be pushing for the Games to go ahead. 

 

So really, the IOC just want this sort of ‘made for TV’ spectacle, because that's what they need to break even in light of those TV deals. But the Japanese government and Japanese public are just increasingly concerned about what that will mean for everyone. 

 

RUBY:

Mm and how are athletes themselves feeling about this then? Are you getting a sense that there are many who feel like this is too risky? 

 

KIERAN:

In recent weeks, we've begun to see athletes arrive in Japan. The first Australian athletes left a few weeks ago. We saw the first Covid positive athlete arrive over the weekend. A Ugandan team arrived and one of their athletes tested positive. And you know, that athlete is now in quarantine. 

 

There's been some pushback from athletes, particularly the IOC, requires athletes to sign a waiver, where they waive any legal rights to take action against the IOC included in that waiver was risk of death from Covid-19. So if an athlete goes to Japan and contracts Covid and, you know, terribly and, you know, suffers poorly and ultimately, you know, suffers health damage, as a result, they won't be able to sue the IOC or the Japanese government. That elicited some pushback. And I know, for example, representative bodies for athletes have expressed concern about how really this is all being done for the IOC’s benefit and for the benefit of TV companies. 

 

But most athletes I've spoken to are really excited. Now, these are athletes who have spent all their lives heading to this moment. And so notwithstanding everything that's in the way, you know, notwithstanding all of these rules and restrictions, they want the Games to go ahead. But it will look like a very different Games. You know, one athlete said to me when he arrives, he's just going to stay in his room until his race because he just can't risk getting Covid. He can't risk being a close contact of someone because there's a risk he wouldn't even be able to compete in this race he spent four years preparing for. You know, that's not the image, the mental image of an Olympics that, you know, all of our heads and particularly in the minds of the athletes. But I suppose that's what's going to have to happen if we want an Olympics to occur in the pandemic era. 

 

RUBY:

Okay, so the Olympics this year are going to look quite different from how they usually do. And we have all of these athletes who are going, and have spent a lot of time preparing for this moment. At the same time, we also have the vast majority of the Japanese population who, as you’ve said, are opposed to the games going ahead. And the countdown is on. We’re weeks away now from the games beginning. And, given all of that, I'm just wondering where you land on whether these Games should be going ahead at this moment in time? 

 

KIERAN:

The IOC and the Japanese government are banking on this being a success and all of us collectively forgetting all of this drama in the lead up to it. And I think there's some chance that will happen. And if this goes off smoothly with minimal Covid cases, minimal larger spread in Tokyo, we will remember the fact that the Japanese government and the IOC were able to put on the largest international sporting event of the pandemic. And that will be historic. That will be something we remember in decades to come. 

 

But I do think there's something deeply troubling about an international sporting event going ahead without the support of the local population and the fact that there's so much resistance to the Games happening in a democratic country. You know, the cost involved in this. And the Japanese government has spent about 33 billion Australian dollars hosting the games and Oxford study, put that at about 200% overspend the most expensive games ever. The postponement alone has cost about four billion Australian dollars. And that cost is being almost exclusively borne by the Japanese taxpayers. And if they're saying now they don't want the games to happen, you know who the IOC to push on regardless? You know, I think that sets a very dangerous precedent. I suspect that our host countries in the future will be pushing for clauses in host city contracts that give them greater control. But I do fear that if these games are successful, this will all be forgotten about and we'll push on. 

 

That said, you know, I really hope they are a success. I know a lot of athletes who have put their life into their sport and they want these games to happen and they want to go there and have the chance to win gold. And, you know, if the games don't happen, it would be heartbreaking for them. 

 

But I do think it raises broader questions about the role of international sport, the role of international, unaccountable sporting organisations and their influence over sovereign governments, all of which is pretty pertinent for Australia because we're almost certain to get the 2032 Olympic Games. 

 

RUBY:

Kieran, thank you so much for your time. 

 

KIERAN:

Thanks.

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today - 

 

New South Wales recorded 10 new cases of COVID-19 in the community yesterday - bringing Sydney’s Bondi cluster to 21 cases. Nine of NSW’s 10 new cases are linked to existing cases.

 

The New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian says that mandatory mask-wearing indoors and on public transport will be extended for another week.

 

And a new report from the Victorian anti-corruption body has found the state’s prison system is facing serious, systemic corruption issues. 

 

IBAC’s Special Report on Corrections also found that staff in Victoria’s prisons used excessive force and inappropriate strip-searching practices. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends] 

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Kieran Pender is a writer and lawyer. He is an honorary lecturer at the ANU College of Law.

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