The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a chance to reexamine our priorities

Guest post by Brian Clifton

A little over ten years ago, at 2:46 in the afternoon, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean about 72 kilometers east of the Tohoku region of Japan. It was the 4th largest earthquake ever recorded.  The massive quake immediately triggered effects felt as far away as Chile. 

At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a 14-meter-high tsunami swept over the seawall meant to protect the plant, flooding four of the reactor buildings.  This led to the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to decide whether Tokyo, the world`s biggest city, should be evacuated or not.  In the end Prime Minister Kan decided against evacuating Tokyo, though 154,000 people were evacuated from towns near Fukushima Daiichi.  Ten years later about 40,000 of the evacuees still haven`t returned.

There are still 900 tons of melted nuclear fuel inside the damaged reactors.  It is still too dangerous for humans to go near them.  Remote-controlled robots with cameras have offered the only images inside of the damaged reactors.  Officials say that it will take 30-40 years to remove the nuclear fuel, waste and debris at the site.  Even if people do manage to remove everything, there is no real plan yet on how to dispose of this massive amount of radioactive material.  Even more worrying is what will happen if another major earthquake occurs in the meantime.  If the fuel rods in the damaged reactors are ever exposed, it could cause a meltdown that would be far worse than the disaster in 2011.

Approximately 20,000 people died in the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and thousands more are still listed as missing.

Therefore, in September of 2013 it was with astonishment that residents of Japan heard Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tell the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the situation in Fukushima was “under control.”  Abe`s comments were immediately criticized by people on the left and the right, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who said “he was lying.”  However, Abe`s pitch ultimately convinced the IOC, who awarded the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo.  Just six days after the IOC had made the decision to let Tokyo host the 2020 Summer Olympics, TEPCO (the company that operates the Fukushima Daiichi plant) admitted that Fukushima was “not under control.”  And thus the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics were born out of a lie.  It was a lie that was extremely disrespectful to the people who suffered in Tohoku, and it downplayed the seriousness of the danger that is still present at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant today.

The next time most of the world thought about the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games was when Prime Minister Abe emerged from a green drain pipe awkwardly dressed like Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. 

Then came the spectacle of Donald Trump, and many people around the world forgot about the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics again.  Then came COVID-19.

In March of 2020 Prime Minister Abe came under increasing pressure to postpone the 2020 Summer Games because of the coronavirus pandemic.  The IOC and Prime Minister Abe held out as long as possible, but given the evidence of the severity of the pandemic they finally decided to postpone the Olympics and Paralympics one year.

Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with approximately 499,793 cases and 9,353 deaths reported as of April 11th, 2021.  Unsurprisingly, the densely populated Tokyo metro area has had the largest number of cases and deaths.  However, Japan has been very slow to roll out vaccinations for its residents, with only some health care workers vaccinated thus far. It is still unclear when vaccinations will be available for all residents, but it looks increasingly unlikely that vaccinations will be widespread by the start of the Summer Games, which many doctors and public health officials are saying is imperative before an event of this magnitude.  Also, foreign athletes will not be required to be vaccinated, further adding to the possibility that the Summer Games could turn into a superspreader event.

“A recent poll by national broadcaster NHK found that roughly 80% of Japanese think the games should be canceled or postponed.”

Kuhn 2021

Various polls over the last year have shown that the Japanese public is consistently and firmly opposed to the Summer Games continuing on as planned, with most opposed citing safety concerns related to COVID-19.  However, Tokyo organizers and the IOC persistently continue to stick to their plan of holding the Olympics this summer, completely ignoring the will of the people and refusing to acknowledge the obvious risk to public health.   It could be because the Tokyo Games has collected a record $3.3 billion from domestic sponsors.  Apparently it`s more important for sponsors to sell McDonald`s hamburgers and Asahi Superdry beer than it is to look after the wellbeing of the athletes and the people of Tokyo.  Can`t we as humans do better than this? 

I think everyone can understand the idea of wanting to have a successful Olympics this summer.  During the past year there has been so much misery and difficulty—what would be better than declaring victory over COVID-19 with the Olympics, celebrating athleticism and the triumph of the human spirit? However, the reality is that the dangers of the pandemic are far from over in Japan, and the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is still precarious.  The current situation with the Tokyo Olympics presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our priorities and make choices based on what would be best for the health and safety of the athletes and the people of Japan.  Postponing or Cancelling the Tokyo Summer Games would reflect the best aspects of our humanity.  It would be a real triumph of the human spirit.

Originally from New Orleans, Brian Clifton is a small business owner and longtime resident of Mishima, Japan.

Photo Credits: (top) The heading of a petition against the Olympics (bottom left): a brochure cover reporting “18 Reasons Against the Tokyo Olympics” (bottom right): The new Tokyo Olympic Stadium