History & Culture / East Asia

What took Japan so long to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

by Isabella Chua
Length 8 min

Postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is an unprecedented move. What did Japan consider before making the call?

At the 2016 Rio Olympics’ closing ceremony, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delighted the world by emerging as Super Mario, the iconic Nintendo character, to announce Tokyo as host of the next Olympics.

shinzo abe as mario in rio 2016 olympics

“Tunnelling” all the way from Tokyo, Japan, to Rio, Brazil, Shinzo Abe emerged as Super Mario to announce that Japan will be carrying the torch for the next Summer Olympic Games. Credits: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, CC BY 3.0 BR.

Four years on, Abe stands alone for a completely different reason. Despite waves of calls by countries and their athletes to postpone the Games in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan’s prime minister had been adamant that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games would go on as planned. Until 24 March, that is, when he finally agreed to postpone the Games to the summer of 2021, after consulting with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Emperor of Japan.

Arriving at this decision could not have been easy. The Games have never been postponed; they have only been called off thrice, and it took both World Wars to do that. Rio’s 2016 Olympics trudged on amidst the Zika virus—though that virus was classified an epidemic rather than a pandemic—and the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that postponing or staging the Games elsewhere would “not significantly alter” the virus’s transmission.

But to some, Japan’s response was long overdue, and Japan’s public image has since taken a hit. So, why did Japan wait until the eleventh hour before postponing the Games? We look at some reasons that may have contributed to the delay.


Japan’s economy is at stake

With an estimated loss of US$6 billion, delaying or cancelling the Tokyo Games would further strain the fragile Japan economy, which has been shrinking 7.1 percent annually since late last year. Japan is currently at risk of its worst recession since the 2008 global financial crisis.

That said, the Games have historically been a money pit, wherein the final cost of hosting it outsizes the initial budget. Most host countries do not turn a profit; worse, some sink into decade-long debts for it. Even when the Games do turn a profit, this is split amongst the IOC, sports federations, and national Olympic committees, leaving slim earnings for the host country.

Given the Olympic Games’ lacklustre history in turning profitable, why do countries still compete to host it, to the extent of spending millions in the bidding process? A big reason is the expected tourism boom and increased consumer spending during the Games, as travellers pour into host cities to witness the world’s largest sporting event. However, both seem unlikely to happen this year, with COVID-19 travel bans implemented worldwide.


The Olympic Games as the world’s stage

Economic considerations aside, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was a chance for Japan to solidify its public image to the world for years to come.

Beamed to a captive audience of billions, the Olympics is the dream platform for host countries to project an ideal narrative of themselves to the world. For the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games, China aimed to show the world—and silence those sceptical about—what a Communist country was capable of. Beijing achieved this by pulling off a charm offensive, showcasing China’s technological advances and economic prowess throughout the Games.

beijing 2008 olympics opening ceremony

The opening ceremony of Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics, directed by multiple-Oscar nominee Zhang Yimou, featured China’s rich and illustrious history and culture. Credits: U.S Army, CC BY 2.0.

Comparatively, Japan’s narrative has consistently been one of strength and resilience, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is no different.

Touted as the “Recovery Olympics”, the 2020 Olympic torch relay spotlighted the recovery of areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country in 2011. With the curveball of COVID-19 thrown in, it became even more crucial for Japan to project steadfastness and reassurance as the world fixed its eyes on the country’s response.


Losing the home advantage

In sports, the home field advantage refers to how teams perform better on their home ground compared to when visiting other teams’ grounds. This is backed up by data, in which researchers found, among other things, referee bias as a contributor to home field advantage.

Now that Tokyo has been declared the host for the Summer Olympic Games next year, the point is moot. Still, before the official announcement came, the IOC had the authority to relocate the Games to another city, which may have contributed to Shinzo Abe’s hesitance.

A look at the Olympic Games in which Japan performed best shows the theory checks out. Not only did the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics make the cut for Japan’s best 20 Games, they also placed third and seventh, respectively, based on their total point score from their medals.

An additional advantage is that as the host country, Japan can add new sports to the existing twenty-five core sports of the Games this year. Japan played to its strengths here, debuting karate, sport climbing, skateboarding, and surfing, as well as adding baseball and softball back to the roster for the first time since 2008.

japanese baseball player at the 2008 beijing olympics

Taking off as one of Japan’s most popular sports after the end of the Second World War, baseball remains to this day a beloved participatory and spectator sport in Japan. Credits: Smartneddy, CC BY-SA 3.0.

These new inclusions would have given Japan its largest contingent of over 500 athletes, besting its previous record of 355 athletes in the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. With more athletes, a country’s chances of winning more medals naturally increases.

Unfortunately postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might disqualify some athletes from the Games. While the Olympics in general does not impose an age limit across its sports, football is an exception. To prevent the Olympic Games from overshadowing the FIFA World Cup, male football players have to be under 23 years old to qualify, with only three spots reserved for overage players.

If the IOC does not raise the age limit, these players—who turn 24 next year—would have to compete for just three coveted spots.

Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu has some tough decisions to make. Notable players who will be overage include Tsuyoshi Watanabe and Yuta Nakayama, who has captained the present Olympic-age team in international tournaments.


What happens now?

First, the good news: the Games will retain its name of ‘Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020’, and will still be held during the summer, with the Olympics held from 23 July, to 8 August, 2021, and the Paralympics from 24 August to 5 September, 2021. This will give the planning committee and the athletes some breathing space to make preparations rather than scramble while a global pandemic is going on.

Now, the not-so-pleasant news: even with the dates confirmed, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee will still have a logistical headache ahead of it. It will require Marie Kondo levels of coordination to sort out the billion-dollar contracts with existing sponsors and broadcast partners, which did not have a clause on postponement during the time of their signing. Then, there is the issue of what to do with the 57 percent of athletes who have qualified for this year’s Games, as well as the millions of tickets that have already been sold worldwide.

But really, does the fate of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games surprise anyone? With the pandemic being the only thing the world can talk about right now, perhaps the idea that Japan even had a choice at all was an illusion to begin with.

Correction: Earlier, we stated that the Olympics have only been cancelled twice. This is incorrect; it has been cancelled three times, in 1916, 1940, and 1944. We have since amended the error.