News analysis

Tokyo's 'Recovery Olympics' takes on a 2nd meaning with Covid-19 outbreak

The Tokyo 2020 Games were billed as the "Recovery Olympics", as Japan wished to showcase its resilience and reconstruction from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.

The term has now taken on a second meaning, with the Games now delayed to "a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021".

There will be plenty of symbolism for the 2021 event. It will not only be the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, but also, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described, a "testament to mankind's defeat of the new virus".

Japan on Wednesday (March 25) turned off its countdown timers, 121 days before the intended start of the Games. The Olympics had been set for July 24 to Aug 9, and the Paralympics from Aug 25 to Sept 6.

The new dates have not been set, but International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach on Wednesday did not rule out hosting the event before July 2021. There were concerns over the impact of Tokyo's brutal summer on athletes.

Countries worldwide have lauded the move to postpone the Games as the Covid-19 pandemic worsens, with United States President Donald Trump calling the decision "wise" in a call with Mr Abe.

Japan, which is also dealing with an outbreak, on Wednesday advised against all non-essential travel overseas.

Tokyo saw a surge of 41 cases on Wednesday to 212 infections in the largest one-day spike.

Governor Yuriko Koike on Wednesday asked residents to avoid going out unnecessarily this weekend as she said Tokyo's immediate challenge was to overcome Covid-19, even as it hunkers down to iron out the "mountain load" of legal contractual issues and a skyrocketing budget that threaten to cloud the rescheduled Games.

Still, she said a delayed Olympics was preferable to the unthinkable option of a cancellation, though it is back to the drawing board.

The decision to still call next year's event "Tokyo 2020" would have saved headaches over merchandising. But organisers must renegotiate sponsorship deals and new leases, with some venues already booked for next year.

The Enoshima Yacht Harbour, which had asked private yacht owners to temporarily vacate their berths, are among venues that are counting their losses.

With the Athletes' Village to be repurposed into condominiums post-Games, and a quarter of the 5,632 apartments already sold, real estate developers now have to answer to buyers.

Hotel rooms must be cancelled and rebooked again. The volunteer enlistment process will need to be restarted if many of the 110,000 unpaid recruits cannot commit to the new schedule.

 
 
 

There are other tricky questions. Will ticket-holders get their money back despite the no-refund policy? Who will foot the bill for the ballooning costs associated with the delay?

The Nikkei financial newspaper cited the Tokyo 2020 Committee as estimating added costs of 300 billion yen (S$3.9 billion). This is on top of the official budget of 1.35 trillion yen, though a government audit last year put the cost at about three trillion yen.

Mr Abe, who is Japan's longest-serving premier, sees the Olympics as the crowning moment of his leadership as he winds down his tenure.

He will, in all likelihood, still be in power when the Games are held, but the delay has thrown a spanner into his political calculations.

Many expected a snap election later this year with his legacy burnished by a successful Games. But this has been cast into doubt with the delay, and with the economy on the brink of a recession.

 
 
 

Mr Abe was 10 years old during the 1964 Games, a bid won by his grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi. Mr Hayato Ikeda, then leader during the 1964 event - the first Olympics to be held in Japan - resigned the day after the closing ceremony.

Will history repeat itself?

Barring another extension to term limits, Mr Abe's tenure as president of the Liberal Democratic Party must end in September 2021. A general election must be called by October next year.