Japan National Stadium, Kasumigaoka-machi, Sinjuku| Photo: ekkun – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article Japan National Stadium, Kasumigaoka-machi, Sinjuku| Photo: ekkun – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Faster, higher and stronger infections are imminent in Japan due to profit-driven officials and politicians, argues Sean Ledwith

The XXXII Olympiad of the modern era is shaping up to be a lose-lose for the inhabitants of five major Japanese cities, especially those in the capital city. For the next fortnight, the world will witness the stupefying madness of conducting a massive international sports event, in a country that is synonymous with densely packed-urban landscapes, during a global health crisis.

The unelected and unaccountable International Olympic Committee (IOC) that rigidly controls all aspects of the event has arrogantly turned a deaf ear to the protests of the Japanese people who have made it abundantly clear they do not welcome the games. Polling indicates 80% of the citizens of the country think the Olympics should not be going ahead. Thousands have marched in daily protests outside the Tokyo Metropolitan building where the tin-eared bureaucrats of the IOC have ensconced themselves.

A major doctors’ trade union, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, with over 6000 members, also called for the cancellation of the games a few weeks ago. Their statement complained that they already have “their hands full and almost no spare capacity” and argued that “cancelling an event that has the potential to increase the number of infections and deaths is the right choice.”

A spokesperson from a nurses’ union similarly denounced the decision of event organisers to co-opt 500 of their members to provide medical cover for athletes:

“We must stop the proposal to send nurses who are engaged in the fight against a serious coronavirus pandemic to volunteer at the Olympics. I am furious at the insistence on staging the Olympics despite the risk to patients’ and nurses’ health and lives.

IOC boss Thomas Bach is dismissive of the months of protests and the mounting evidence the games are a major risk to participants and public alike, arrogantly commenting, “The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible.” Hardly the most tactful of statements during a raging pandemic.

The superspreader show must go on

The IOC’s bluster about the idealism and purity of the games belies the reality that cold hard cash is the reason they are railroading the Japanese people.  Nearly 80% of IOC revenue comes through television deals with the world’s biggest broadcasters so cancelling the games would have cost the organisation billions.  The dearth of fans at most events is little more than an inconvenience to Thomas Bach and the other executives who usually reside cost-free at a 5-star hotel in Switzerland.

The fears of anti-Olympic activists that the games will act as a Covid super spreader event are not difficult to understand. Japan is currently in its fourth state of emergency since the pandemic struck last year and has already lost 14 000 people to the virus.

The virus is currently ripping through the population at its highest rate since January and so the prospect of 15 000 athletes-many unvaccinated- arriving from over 200 countries is a decidedly unappealing one for most Japanese. Although, like many Far Eastern states, the country managed the first wave of the pandemic reasonably well, it has struggled in the face of the more infectious Delta variant.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga from the right-of-centre Liberal Democrat Party has failed to coordinate an effective vaccination programme and only 20% of the 126 million population are currently double jabbed-the lowest rate of any country in the developed world.

There are already over 80 individuals connected with the Olympics who have tested positive and it is difficult to see how that number will not increase exponentially as the event unfolds.

The IOC has decided there will be no spectators at most events, depriving them of the buzz and excitement from the crowd that are normally essential ingredients of the Olympics. Athletes are expected to share rooms and are not being provided with free masks. They are expected to bring their own. The IOC has also thoughtfully devised a stipulation that any participant who contracts or even dies of Covid cannot sue the organisation.


As if their dismissal of Covid fears was not tactless enough, organisers added to the downbeat mood surrounding the games by attempting to censor images of anti-racist athletes taking the knee.

Women footballers making the gesture of solidarity in the opening matches were initially not shown by IOC media outlets, in line with official guidelines that the Olympics should not be used for explicitly political purposes.

An outcry following this crass censorship has forced the IOC into a rapid U-turn, neatly vindicating by implication the decision of the England men’s team to adopt taking the knee during the Euros.  

Of course, the IOC’s notion of the games as essentially apolitical is studiously naive. Taking the knee is an echo of the iconic raised fists of black American athletes at the 1968 games. All the games of the post-war era have likewise been marked by an undercurrent of power politics; from the massacre of left-wing students before the 1968 event to the cold war posturing of superpower boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 games.

In the 21st century, the Olympics have been thoroughly hard-wired into the prevailing global agenda of neoliberalism with recent games been characterised by militarisation, privatisation and mass evictions.

For an alternative vision of international sporting events in a saner society we should look back to the Workers’ Olympics organised by the German left in the pre-Nazi years which highlighted individual competition shorn of the corporate and jingoistic paraphernalia that will dominate our television screens for the next month.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters