Pride and anxiety mingle in Japan as Olympic medal tally and Covid cases rise – The Guardian
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Japan broke two records last week. On Thursday, the day its athletes took their medal haul to a level not seen in the country’s Olympic history, the host city reported 5,042 coronavirus cases – the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic.
Japan has continued to widen the gap between its Tokyo 2020 medal count and Rio, where it won 41. Now, with 56, it is third in the overall table behind China and the US on the eve of the closing ceremony.
In the days after the tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron in an empty Olympic stadium, a string of homegrown successes in the judo arena, the pool and skateboarding park momentarily drowned out the din of objections to holding the Games in the middle of a pandemic.
It seemed like a Japanese public that had told pollsters on multiple occasions they did not want the Olympics on their doorstep this summer had reconciled their anxiety with admiration for the heroics of their athletes’ heroics.
On the few occasions when the sports events broke out of their indoor bubble, enforcing the spectator ban became practically impossible. Thousands watched the road cycling races, and crowds turned out again in the northern city of Sapporo for this weekend’s marathons, even as Japan’s cumulative caseload topped 1 million and the number of Covid-19 patients in serious condition reached twice the number of two weeks ago.
The answer to the question of whether anti-virus measures and sport, much of it exhilarating, have combined to form a successful whole depends on who is being asked.
The least surprising assessment came from Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, whose high-handed dismissal of local anxiety about the Games has made him something of a social-media hate figure in a country that has otherwise treated tens of thousands of visitors with patience and kindness.
The Games had “far exceeded expectations”, Bach said, brushing aside any suggestion of a link between the event and the surge in cases in the host city. Viewed from the narrowest perspective, it is hard to argue with him: opening-night nerves among sponsors were tamed, the IOC’s multibillion-dollar TV rights payday is secure, and Bach had his audience with Japan’s emperor.
The certainty with which Bach denies an Olympic role, however incidental, in the virus’s recent surge is matched only by Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who, like a sport climber holding on for dear life, has clung to the coattails of medal-winners in the hope of an Olympic boost in time for what promises to be a tricky election this autumn. He has used his social media accounts to congratulate every Japanese winner, even making a public, and cringeworthy, phone call to the first homegrown champion of Tokyo 2020, the judoka Naohisa Takato. He has had much less to say about surging cases and rising pressure on hospitals.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka lights the cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Games. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Instead, he sparked fury by saying that only Covid patients displaying serious symptoms, or at risk of developing them, would be admitted to hospital. Everyone else, including those with “mild” symptoms such as shortness of breath, would be told to recover at home.
While he has since adjusted the criteria for hospital care under pressure from his own party, he is ploughing the same political furrow that made him effective in his previous incarnation as the government’s top spokesman: repeat the same claim with such regularity that, eventually, even sceptics might be persuaded.
There is “no evidence” of a connection between the Olympics and the recent surge in infections, Suga said again on Friday, while his chief medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, warned that the festive atmosphere surrounding the Games was causing complacency.
“The fact the Olympics are being held has had an impact on people’s awareness,” said Omi, who warned weeks ago that holding the Games during the pandemic was “abnormal”.
As Tokyo 2020 reaches its climax, Suga and Bach are indulging in Olympic chicanery that could be exposed when more is known about the patterns of behaviour that led to the latest outbreak. Both spent months championing the spirit of hope the Games would bring to a nervous host community, yet appear to be turning their backs when its physical incarnation – more social interaction – comes at a cost to public health.
The last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, in 1964, Japan seized the opportunity to demonstrate its transformation from militarist aggressor to fully fledged member of the community of responsible nations, complete with a constitution that would prevent it from waging war again. Almost six decades on, the world’s third-biggest economy, whose technology, popular culture and cuisine are celebrated around the globe, did not need another Olympics to prove its international credentials.
This time, it will be judged on whether it pulled off what had at times looked like mission impossible: to welcome tens of thousands of visitors for a sports event and simultaneously prevent it from doubling as a virus super-spreader.
Reliable answers will have to wait until long after the athletes, journalists, sponsors and officials have left. And only then will the Japanese public be able to decide if a multibillion-dollar Olympics they helped bankroll but were banned from watching – at least in the most immediate sense – were worth the risk.
Tokyo, remember, is under a fourth state of emergency that will last until at least the end of the month, when the Paralympics should be in full swing. Experts advising the Tokyo metropolitan government forecast that the capital’s seven-day rolling average of cases could surge to around 10,900 a day by 18 August if current transmission trends persist. Incredibly, Suga and local organisers are still refusing to rule out lifting the ban on spectators to attend events.
While warnings from the medical community grow more urgent, Suga will prefer to cling to the message delivered this week by the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Japan, she said, should be proud of having overcome “great adversity” to stage the Games during the pandemic.
Within hours of the closing ceremony on Sunday evening, Bach and the rest of the IOC entourage will breathe a sigh of relief and return home, their thoughts turning to the new set of challenges posed by February’s winter Games in Beijing. Back in Japan, their erstwhile hosts will still be holding their breath.