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Yearender: Tokyo Olympics face uphill challenge to emerge from tunnel

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thejapannews– The illuminated Olympic rings, Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower are seen in the Tokyo Bay area on Dec. 1, 2020. The giant Olympic rings returned to Tokyo Bay on Tuesday around four months after having been removed for safety and maintenance checks. The Rainbow Bridge is specially illuminated in rainbow colors. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

Despite the action taken by the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers, challenges still loom large ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games.

By sportswriter Wang Zijiang

TOKYO, Dec. 23 (Xinhua) — Thousands of jubilant Tokyoites gathered by the Tokyo Bay on a winter night, intoxicated by fireworks in the shape and color of the five Olympic rings lit up the skyline of the Japanese capital.

It was late January, and in six months the Olympic Games would be declared open by Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the brand-new National Stadium. The whole country was gripped by euphoria. After nearly seven years’ preparation, everything was seemingly on track to host the world’s greatest sports event.

But only a few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world and the Tokyo 2020 organizers were struck by surprise. Although the atmosphere was getting tense day by day, they managed to stage the rehearsal for the Olympic torch relay, open the iconic volleyball arena and bring back the Olympic flame from Greece.

Japan’s government and IOC president Thomas Bach both insisted the games could go forward, but the withdrawal of Canada and Australia dealt a deadly blow against their political ally in Asia.

Canada became the first country to withdraw from the games on March 22, warning that it wouldn’t send its athletes to Tokyo unless they are postponed for a year. Australia followed suit by citing that it was impossible to assemble a team in time.

Olympic gold medalists Tadahiro Nomura (1st R) and Saori Yoshida (2nd R) light the Olympic cauldron during the Olympic flame arrival ceremony in Miyagi, Japan, on March 20, 2020. (Kyodo News/Handout via Xinhua)

Under the mounting pressure, Abe and Bach agreed two days later to postpone the Olympics by about one year, making the Tokyo games the first Olympics postponed in history.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC said in a statement.

The tunnel proved much longer and darker than expected and it is easy to shake confidence, even for some from IOC, Tokyo 2020 and the Japanese government are doubtful whether the games can take place in 2021.

John Coates, who heads the IOC’s coordination commission, told The Australian newspaper that the games might not go ahead as rescheduled while Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori, also a former Japanese prime minister, told Japanese state broadcaster NHK more frankly, “If the current situation continues, we can’t (host the games next July).”

A poll of almost 13,000 Japanese companies showed that 53.6 percent want the Games postponed again or canceled entirely. Two-thirds of the public also backed postponement or cancellation.

Japan was in desperate need of the multi-sport extravaganza. They want to repeat the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games’ performance, which helped transform Tokyo from a city still recovering from the Second World War into the major international metropolis it is today.

Expectations were high. Organizers had wanted the games to help reconstruct the earthquake and tsunami-hit area in 2011, to change the future of Japan, and most importantly, as Abe had imagined, to “vitalize the whole of Japan.”

Fortunately, even when the country was in a state of emergency, some were still very determined that the games could be held in time. Bach maintained a “clear commitment to having these games in July next year,” while Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who was running for re-election, pledged a “120-percent effort” to ensure games could go ahead.

Koike was successfully re-elected for a second term, winning more than 60 percent of the votes and beating 21 other candidates, including Taro Yamamoto, who had said he would cancel Tokyo 2020 if elected.

Bach said that the election result was a “reflection of the great confidence the citizens of Tokyo have in her leadership during these challenging times.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach wears a face mask to visit Tokyo’s new National Stadium, the main venue for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games on Nov. 17, 2020. (Behrouz Mehri/Pool via Xinhua)

But more challenges were yet to come. On August 28, Abe, who played an important role in helping Tokyo win the bid seven years ago, resigned for health reasons, throwing the Olympics into new uncertainty.

Yoshihide Suga, dubbed the “continuity candidate” for ardently pledging to continue his predecessor’s policies, became the new Prime Minister, and immediately promised to do “whatever it takes” to stage the Tokyo Olympics.

Doubts were gradually removed, and officials from the central and Tokyo metropolitan governments and Tokyo Olympic officials kicked off a long-awaited meeting in September to plan countermeasures against COVID-19. Serious steps were taken to consider how the games should be held.

On a four-day visit from November 14 to 18, Bach met with Suga and made the sports world breathe a sigh of relief by promising that the Tokyo Olympics will be held as planned next summer despite the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Bach also said that a “reasonable” number of spectators would be allowed into the games venues to watch the sporting action without taking vaccines.

Nine months after the games were postponed, several things are now clear. Firstly, the games will be simplified to save money and not be held “with grand splendor,” as Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said. Secondly, the games will not be held behind closed doors. Thirdly, strict countermeasures against COVID-19 will be taken.

This photo taken on Nov. 10, 2020 shows the illuminated Olympic rings standing outside Tokyo’s new National Stadium. Tokyo is Japan’s capital and most populous city, with around 14 million inhabitants. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

But too many questions will have to be answered in the coming months. Specific details regarding spectators, including those from overseas, will not be decided until spring next year when the test events resume.

Since late November, Japan has been suffering the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic, with the record for daily confirmed cases broken several times. Many experts were extremely concerned about the pace of the virus’s spread, as it took less than two months for the figure to double to top the 200,000-mark, compared to the nine and a half months it took to reach the 100,000-mark from when the first case was diagnosed in January.

A latest opinion poll from NHK has shown that more than 30 percent of respondents think the Tokyo Olympics should be canceled.

There is still a long way to go before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.