Tokyo 2020 Is Now Tokyo 2021: How Will the Postponed Olympic Games Unfold in Japan This July?

By Kate BoveLast Updated Apr 30, 2021 3:09:16 PM ET
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Torches held by Masamitsu Kikuchi (L) and Motoko Obayashi (R) are seen on the last stage of the second day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games torch relay at Tsurugajo Castle in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture on March 26, 2021. Credit: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Since the first modern Olympic Games, which were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896, the international competition has only been canceled three times — once in 1916 during World War I and twice in the 1940s during World War II. Amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government announced the postponement of the Summer Games back in March 2020.

It wasn’t a cancellation, but it was still something unprecedented. And while the decision to move the Games was, undoubtedly, a wise one, the new Tokyo 2020 — yes, that branding will still be used — is fast approaching. With the Games set to kick off on July 23, 2021, we’re taking a look at everything you need to know, from the Olympics’ postponement to the safety protocols that will serve as a framework in Tokyo this year.

There Was No Roadmap for the Postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Back in 2016, the Summer Games, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, were plagued by concerns over the Zika virus. Despite being found in more than 50 countries, the mosquito-borne virus disproportionately — and severely — impacts Brazil and the folks who live there. At the time, a Canadian health specialist called for a postponement of the 2016 Games. And, when the Games went on as scheduled, several high-profile athletes, including pro golfers Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, withdrew from Rio 2016.

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Photo Courtesy: Christopher Jue/Xinhua/Getty Images

In comparison to Olympic boycotts of the past, which have seen large swathes of athletes as well as entire nations pull out of the Games, these withdrawals from Rio 2016 weren’t particularly disruptive. But, unlike COVID-19, the Zika virus never evolved into a full-blown pandemic. With the Berlin-hosted 1916 Olympics being cancelled on account of World War I, no other modern games has coincided with a pandemic.

Needless to say, like so many organizations across so many disciplines, the IOC didn’t have a roadmap to follow. Although news outlets deemed the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games a logistical nightmare, it’s clear that officials made the right decision: as of April 2021, 3.15 million people have died worldwide as a result of COVID-19.

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Now, with less than 100 days to go before the Olympic Games commence, the Japanese government is expected to impose a third state of emergency in Tokyo amid an increase of COVID-19 cases. Despite this fourth wave, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said that any state of emergency declaration would not impact the host nation’s ability to hold the Games.

“New Start Tokyo 2020” Finds a Path Forward

So much time goes into planning the schedule of events; coordinating the creation and revamping of infrastructure; marketing the Games; and making merchandise and other time-sensitive materials. And, of course, all those factors also have an astronomical price-tag for the host city. Notoriously, very few hosts actually profit from holding the Games. In the last 15 years, millions of spend has easily turned into several billion, and, every four years, the need to impress the world looms even larger.

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2020 Organizing Committee president Seiko Hashimoto makes an opening speech while IOC president Thomas Bach (on a screen) listens during a five-party meeting of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games on April 28, 2021. Credit: Franck Robichon/Pool/Getty Images

Beijing’s 2008 Games cost China a whopping $40 billion, bested only by Sochi 2014, which saw Russia spending roughly $51 billion to host the Winter Games. Needless to say, this off-field competition has led to staggering debt — not to mention slews of abandoned venues, the displacement of local residents and indigenous folks, and detrimental pollution.

According to Business Insider, the cost of the Tokyo Olympics has ballooned to double that of the official $12.6 billion planned cost back in 2020. In the wake of the postponement, that cost has reached around $15.4 billion — though, as reported by Sports Illustrated, "Government audits suggest the number is closer to $25 billion."

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In the spring of 2020, a task force dubbed "New Start Tokyo 2020" was green-lit to start the mass rescheduling process. Now, all that careful planning is starting to be put into motion. That is, the 121-day torch relay began on March 25 from Japan’s Fukushima prefecture and, by now, is well underway. This official countdown to the Games has been something of a symbol of hope — now more than ever.

"The objective of the Olympic torch relay is to enhance the enthusiasm," Toshiro Muto, CEO of the organizing committee, said (via People). "We need to balance things out between bringing enthusiasm and preventing COVID-19 infection." With this in mind, spectators, who are masked and socially distanced, are allowed to attend the relay — so long as they cheer quietly.

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How Has the Postponement Impacted Olympic Athletes?

The costs, financial and otherwise, for the host country are clear, but what about the athletes? In the photograph below, Japanese fencer Ryo Miyake trains with a foil in downtown Tokyo in March 2020, despite the postponement of the Summer Games. In between training sessions, the would-be Olympian hops on his bicycle and delivers food for Tokyo’s UberEats.

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Photo Courtesy: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Without a doubt, it’s not the pre-Olympic life Miyake imagined for himself. In a pandemic-free world, he’d probably be dedicating all his time and energy to fencing. Like Miyake, so many athletes from around the world saw their Olympic dreams derailed. "I’ve had so many calls with athletes who have been in tears trying to train for their ultimate dream but not wanting to jeopardize their health," American hurdler Lolo Jones wrote on Twitter. "This [postponement] was the right thing to do. May the world heal."

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For many athletes, the postponement was more than just a dream deferred. "As an Olympic athlete, you live your life in (four-year) cycles," wrestler Jordan Burroughs told USA Today. "Everything we do is cyclical." As the publication goes on to point out, all those "carefully crafted training programs [that were] to peak in July" had to be reassessed. Some athletes, who were on the verge of retiring age in their sport, may not want to compete a year later — or the postponement could cause their performances to suffer. After all, a lot can happen in a year, including unforeseen injuries.

Moreover, with 33 sports in the Summer Olympiad, there are 33 international sports federations — not to mention national leagues and, you know, all of soccer — that needed to revamp their schedules to work with the new 2021 Summer Games. For athletes, that amounts to added stress and some tough decisions. One glimmer of hope? Athletes who qualified for the 2020 Games are in for 2021.

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The Olympics Face Backlash From Tokyo Residents

Reportedly, a resounding 80% of Japanese citizens surveyed believed that the Games wouldn’t happen, or, at the very least, that they shouldn’t happen. That survey was conducted in January 2021, but the sentiment holds true for many months later. Without a doubt, part of the backlash is tied to the ongoing pandemic.

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Amid the start of the torch relay, demonstrators march during a protest against Tokyo 2020 Olympics on March 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Like most other countries, Japan has dealt with several "waves" of COVID-19. This is difficult for any country, but, in particular, Japan boasts "the world’s oldest population," which makes those surges all the more threatening. Moreover, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has become a controversial figure in terms of how he’s handled the pandemic. Most notably, Prime Minister Suga enthusiastically backed the contentious "Go To Travel" campaign to boost domestic tourism.

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With this campaign still fresh in their minds and a potential fourth wave of COVID-19 (and another state of emergency) on the horizon, many Japanese citizens are more than wary of the Olympics. But protests against the 2020 Olympics started long before the pandemic. In 2019, for example, anti-Olympics protestors gathered in Tokyo, voicing that the Games should be banned — not just in Tokyo, but all over the world. For one, the costly games end up contributing to local poverty levels and the displacement of locals. Not to mention, the infrastructure takes a huge toll on the environment.

While Sports Illustrated has found that the number of protestors on the ground seems low, the anti-Olympics movement is picking up momentum internationally. For example, in Los Angeles, California, the would-be-site of the 2028 Summer Games, NOlympics LA was launched by the Housing & Homelessness committee of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in 2017. Like Tokyo protestors, the LA-based organization believes that Olympics destroy local communities.

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"Regardless of how ‘successfully’ they are executed, these ‘Games’ will expose tens of thousands of our fellow Angelenos to incalculable risk and feed the problems which are already devastating and destroying the fabric of our communities today, while depriving us of the resources we need to make the city better," the organization’s website notes. "Our goal is still to stop the Olympics."

Meanwhile, in Japan, Olympic runner Hitomi Niiya spoke out about the issue — a rarity for Olympic athletes. "As an athlete, I’m all for the Olympics," she said. "But as a citizen, I’m against it. A person’s life is more important than the Olympics."

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Everything Else We Know About the Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympics

In February 2021, the IOC released its 33-page Tokyo 2020 Playbook, which outlines everything from common-sense advice — mask up, stay distant from others, avoid unnecessary touching, and wash your hands — to travel protocol. While international fans will not be allowed to attend the Games in the interest of safety, athletes who arrive in Japan must produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their departure flight.

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The Shinjuku skyline looms over the New National Stadium, the main stadium for the Tokyo Olympics, on April 21, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

After arrival, they’ll have to procure another negative test. Although there’s no mandatory quarantine period, there’s also no typical tourism or public transit use allowed during those first 14 days in Japan. According to ESPN, athletes also have to submit detailed itineraries to officials, refrain from attending events they aren’t competing in, utilize an app to track their health, and avoid cheering for their teammates. (Clapping, however, is encouraged.)

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If an athlete breaks these rules repeatedly, or flagrantly, they may be sent home. Currently, we’re awaiting a more comprehensive, updated playbook, but, as of now, the IOC isn’t requiring athletes to be vaccinated. Instead, vaccination is merely encouraged — even though roughly 11,000 are expected to travel to Tokyo in less than 100 days.

"Letting in a huge influx of people, many from countries with out-of-control coronavirus transmission, is in fact a threat to the public health of the Japanese people," virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen told ESPN. "I don't think it would be ethically problematic to require everyone to be vaccinated — it's a public health issue and it is a private event." However, Dr. Rasmussen does go on to acknowledge the challenges of vaccination — namely that countries are all in various stages of the rollout process.

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As of now, the Olympics are set to take place from July 23 — August 8, 2021. Check back for the latest on Tokyo 2020.