Home International Olympics Owen: Shinzō Abe’s Departure Will Make Salvaging Tokyo 2020 Even Harder

Owen: Shinzō Abe’s Departure Will Make Salvaging Tokyo 2020 Even Harder

Owen: Shinzō Abe’s Departure Will Make Salvaging Tokyo 2020 Even Harder
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan announced his resignation at a news conference on Friday. Photo: Franck Robichon in The New York Times

By David Owen |

So farewell then, Shinzō Abe.

You were one of the few Japanese Prime Ministers we Westerners could name,

But your departure makes it that much harder to imagine the 2020 Olympics taking place – in 2021

Or ever.

With apologies to E.J.Thribb, the Sports Movement needed the resignation of the long-serving 65-year-old Japanese Premier like a hole in the head. 

Whoever succeeds him – and it looks set to be a reasonably close ally – will not have quite the personal investment in this Olympic and Paralympic Games project that Abe had.

This had been evident since September 2013, when he came to Buenos Aires for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session at which Tokyo was ultimately awarded the Games and decisively grasped the Fukushima nettle that had threatened to poison the bid.

It was underlined once again some three years later – and a couple of thousand kilometres north-east of the Argentine capital – when Abe emerged from a green pipe during the Rio 2016 Olympic Closing Ceremony disguised as Super Mario.

There was a ring of sincerity in IOC President Thomas Bach’s words last week when he described Abe as “a strong partner who always stood up for the interests of Japan, and who at the same time could always be trusted”.

The Tokyo project, let it be noted, has coincided exactly with Bach’s stint in the IOC hot-seat, which began – also in Buenos Aires – just three days after the 2020 host city was selected.

While COVID-19 continues to rampage through countries as diverse as Peru, India and the United States, the prospect of being able to assemble 11,000 athletes from every nation on earth – let alone the rest of the Olympic circus – in one place, with all the crowds and intermingling the Olympics implies, looks as remote as ever.

Perhaps the odds against a sort of Games taking place begin to shorten if one allows for a scenario in which almost everyone directly involved except the athletes is a Japanese resident.

But it still looks a mighty big ask – even if it takes an equally big suspension of disbelief to imagine sports decision-makers giving up on something like $3 billion (£2.2 billion/€2.5 billion) of broadcasting rights fees without first doing everything conceivable to try and fulfill the obligations that would unlock those TV company cheque books.

In the summary I attempted a couple of weeks ago of factors likely to have a strong bearing on whether Tokyo 2020 can proceed, and if so how far removed we can expect these Games to be from a “normal” Olympics and Paralympics – I made no mention of Japanese national pride/strategic interests.

I think, in light of Abe’s departure, this is now worth reassessing.

What you cannot get away from in this regard is that the next big Olympic event – the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics – is earmarked for China.

This, with sombre irony, is the country where the virus that now dominates human affairs first manifested.

It is also the country that in recent years has displaced Japan as the leading Asian power.

Exactly a decade ago, in 2010, China overtook its near neighbour as the world’s second-biggest economy.

Given the huge population disparity, and Japan’s ageing demographic, these new placings are not going to be reversed again.

By 2019, indeed, Chinese gross domestic product was already well over double Japan’s by most rankings.

Seen in this context, the loss of face and blow to national morale should Tokyo 2020 be cancelled but Beijing 2022 go ahead – in 2023 if need be – would be considerable.

The global reach of the Olympics, moreover, makes the event a formidable instrument of soft power that may be – no doubt already has been – pressed into service to strengthen the regional alliances Japan will need to have in place to counterbalance the growing might of Xi Jinping’s increasingly assertive China, which is both a nuclear power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.  

Such long-term, strategic concerns will need to be weighed up by Abe’s successor, alongside many others, prior to deciding how much more sweat and cash the country is prepared to throw at its dream of a second Summer Games before drawing a line and contemplating defeat/moving stoically on.

The new leader may be known as soon as the middle of this month.

The myriad sports bodies which rely on the Summer Olympics for funding, in some cases for a big, big chunk of their funding from Summer Games to Summer Games, will doubtless study the incoming PM’s early pronouncements – and other signals, real or imagined – with rapt attention.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.