Buying time in Olympics race

Editorial | Mary Ma 26 Jan 2021

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted that the Tokyo Olympics postponed from 2020 will go ahead in July as planned.

There was a feeling of deja vu as Suga sought to assure the audience - including key commercial sponsors - who are increasingly skeptical about the future of the Tokyo games in light of new pandemic spikes in nearly every part of the world.

It was also around this time a year ago that Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe said the Tokyo Olympics would be held as scheduled last summer.

Then came March. Just as the torch relay was due to start, Abe announced he had agreed with the International Olympic Committee to postpone the event for a year.

The situation now and then may have changed, but not the sense of uncertainty.

Back then, little was known about the virus that first broke out in Wuhan before being renamed Covid-19.

Scientists struggled to understand the new virus at that time. Clearly, Abe was betting that the pandemic would be over and the world back to normal in 2021.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has proved even more devastating than feared.

Like Abe, Suga is also betting - or hoping - that the rolling out of vaccines will turn the tide. His fingers must be well and truly crossed.

It 's unlikely that a report in Britain's The Times was unfounded. It said policymakers in Tokyo had privately concluded that, with the pandemic erupting further with new variants, the situation would be too difficult for the summer event to happen.

According to the report, it would be realistic to reschedule the Tokyo games to 2032.

That's despite the categorical denial by both the Suga government and the IOC. But in the world of politics, today's denials may not continue to be true tomorrow.

Perhaps it is only natural for Suga and his officials to weigh the best-case scenario against the worst.

A firm decision should be known no later than March since huge logistics would have to be readied prior to July. The necessary travel, quarantine and safety challenges would apply not only to more than 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes but also, hopefully, spectators from around the world. Tokyo would not want to see empty seats at stadiums after investing US$25 billion (HK$193 billion) in the games.

The official denial seemed to be a standard practice to buy time in anticipation of more progress in vaccines.

Perhaps Suga should also look south for inspiration. The Australian Open is being held in Melbourne after the Victorian premier Dan Andrews defied opposition to insist on staging the tennis event in February.

Although not without incident, the event is proceeding with warm-up exercises despite the doubters.

Andrews has toned down expectations for a revenue windfall for Melbourne. He is focused on protecting Melbourne's iconic position in the tennis tradition and is determined not to hand it over to Japan, China or Singapore.

Correct or not, Andrews' resolve is inspiring. Will Suga demonstrate a similar will?

We should have a better idea in March.

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