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Why Suga is so determined to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics

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At the lowest point in May, more than 80 per cent of the Japanese public wanted the upcoming Olympics cancelled or postponed, almost nobody in the country was vaccinated and medical experts were lining up to call the games an intolerable Covid-19 risk.

Despite the intense pressure on Tokyo 2020, Japan has not yet come close to cancelling the Olympics, according to government and organising committee officials. Instead, they have sought to run down the clock and build a sense of inevitability around the games.

That determination to go ahead has nothing to do with financial considerations, said analysts, but reflects instead a mixture of electoral politics, one-upmanship on China and practical calculation by Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister.

There are growing signs that Suga’s political judgment was correct. The percentage of the Japanese public wanting the games cancelled has fallen to 31 per cent, according to the regular NHK poll, and almost two-thirds said the games should proceed with suitable limits on spectators.

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“People are basically becoming resigned to the games taking place,” said Atsuo Ito, a political analyst and former official in the ruling Liberal Democratic party. “If it’s going to happen, then so be it.”

For Suga, one simple fact dominates calculations about the Olympics: it is four years since Japan’s last general election and he must call another by October 22. For him to survive as party leader, the LDP must do well in that election.

Many of his allies believe their best bet is a successful games. “Suga and the people around him think that if the games happen then Olympic fever will take hold,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor of the political newsletter Tokyo Insideline. “If there is a medal rush for Japan then they’ll want to call an election as soon as possible.”

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With the Paralympics closing on September 5, Suga hopes to go to the public almost immediately afterwards and ride an Olympic feelgood factor to another four years in power.

Some bureaucratic advisers to Suga regard holding the Olympics as an electoral risk, said Ito, because a big rise in coronavirus infections traceable to the games could turn into a damaging scandal.

Advice from epidemiologists, however, suggested that simply holding the games was not that dangerous, not least because 80 per cent of those who travel to Japan will be vaccinated. The main danger stems from increased domestic travel and social contact, but Tokyo 2020 organisers hope to control that by limiting the number of spectators at venues.

Cancellation raises political risks of its own. Suga might get a short-term boost if he were seen as a decisive leader protecting the country, but he would then have to contest the election as the man who abandoned the games after years of effort and trillions of yen in public money.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must call an election by October 22, and for him to survive as party leader, the LDP must do well in the polls © Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Several other political factors weigh in favour of going ahead. The Tokyo Games are central to the legacy of Shinzo Abe, Suga’s predecessor as prime minister. Abe is still a powerbroker in the LDP and Suga needs his support.

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Japanese leaders are also acutely aware that Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in early 2022. A triumphant games in China, held just eight months after an ignominious Japanese failure, is a prospect few LDP politicians want to contemplate.

Suga has been betting for months that sentiment will change when voters receive their Covid vaccinations, and after long delays, Japan’s rollout is finally gathering pace. The country is delivering more than 600,000 vaccines a day and aiming to reach 1m this month. About 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the country will have had at least one dose by the time the games start.

One common theory in Japan is that the country is being forced by the International Olympic Committee to host the games. “We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, a former judo champion and executive member of the Japanese Olympic Committee, this month.

But lawyers said the IOC had limited leverage, because Japan had relatively little to lose financially from a cancellation. “Most of the money that Japan put in has already been spent on infrastructure, hotels, the Olympic Village and things like that,” said Irwin Kishner, a sports lawyer at Herrick, Feinstein in New York.

Following last year’s postponement, Japan no longer expects much revenue from Tokyo 2020, and it will lose most of what remains if it chooses to limit spectator numbers and refund ticket sales.

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The IOC, on the other hand, is still in line for full revenues from its broadcasting rights and direct sponsors, which explains its strident insistence that the games had to go ahead “barring Armageddon” and even if Tokyo remains under a Covid state of emergency.

While the Tokyo 2020 organisers have no contractual right to cancel, the IOC would have little recourse if Japan simply closed its borders and made it impossible for the games to take place.

“How would the IOC go about pursuing the Japanese government?” asked Nick White, a sports lawyer at Charles Russell Speechlys in London. “Even if it found a way of suing them, I think any court in its right mind would say a government is entitled to impose restrictions on grounds of public health.”

Fortunately for the IOC, the interests of Japan’s prime minister have aligned with its own. Unless the coronavirus situation deteriorates markedly over the next few weeks, the Olympic cauldron will be lit in Tokyo on July 23.

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