The Olympics Have Always Been An Armageddon For Marginalized People

A Q&A with Dr. Satoko Itani

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Last week, paying subscribers learned all about Natalia Yurchenko, the first woman to perform the roundoff-back handspring vault technique that Simone Biles used to do her extraordinary double pike vault.

If I get over my heartbreak for Morgan Hurd, I’ll try to do a write-up about this weekend’s national gymnastics championships later this week.

“Barring Armageddon that we can't see or anticipate, these things are a go,” IOC member Dick Pound said about whether the Olympics would go forward despite COVID surges all over the world, including in host country Japan. Resistance to the Games in Japan has grown significantly stronger and more vocal over the last few months. Even one of the Olympic sponsors, the newspaper Asahi Shimbum, called for the Games to be canceled in its editorial pages. This call came as Tokyo’s state of emergency, declared months ago, has been under has been extended well into June. Medical groups in the country have also called for the Games cancellation, citing the strain of caring for the increasing number of people who are sick with the virus. Japanese nurses group reacted in anger to the demand for 500 volunteers to go to the Games. And Japan, despite an aging population that is susceptible to the most severe iterations of the virus, has been slow to vaccinate its people. Right now, less than 3 percent have been vaccinated.

I really want to take a moment to unpack Pound’s “Armageddon” statement because it’s so illustrative of the contempt that the IOC exhibits not just towards Tokyo residents, but to the inhabitants of all Olympic host cities.

Last year I published a fairly long piece in Longreads about the destruction that the Games bring to a host city, and how it’s the already-marginalized populations of a place that bear the brunt of the displacement, surveillance, and policing that come with the Games. Local organizers and local government, of course, play a role in what happens there, and bear a lot of responsibility, but there’s little doubt that the Olympics have been a driver of displacement and over-policing. The Olympics have long been an Armageddon for marginalized people.

The IOC is not concerned about the potential Armageddon that might befall the Japanese people or the rest of the world should the Olympics turn into a super spreader event or a new variant emerge, but they are concerned with the very foreseeable Armageddon that will befall them specifically if the Games aren’t held in July: The loss of most of their revenue. The vast majority of the IOC’s revenue comes from television contracts, something in the neighborhood of 75 percent. If the Games aren’t held and there isn’t a product for TV, the IOC will lose, big time. This is why they are okay with having the athletes compete in empty stadiums. It’s all fine as long as they have a product to sell to television.

I reached out to Dr. Satoko Itani, a professor of sport, gender, and sexuality at Kansai University, to ask them about the COVID crisis in Japan and the growing opposition to hosting the Olympics in July. (I previously interviewed Dr. Itani for the aforementioned Longreads feature.)

Here’s our email Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: Can you update people about the state of the COVID-19 emergency in Japan?

Satoko Itani: Many prefectures in Japan are currently under the third state of emergency due to COVID-19, and in the fourth wave of infection. There [are] numerous reports of the so-called "Indian strain" found among patients here. The government is planning to lift the state of emergency on June 21, but many experts are thinking it may be too early. The public here suspects that the government will lift the state of emergency no matter what because the Olympic Games are slated to begin a month later.

They will make the final decision based on the number of new infections and the stress level to the medical system. But we have to be careful with the numbers because the government has been actively suppressed the number of testing. The Tokyo metropolitan government has been conducting fewer than 10,000 tests per day.

Here is the website where you can check the number of tests in Tokyo:

The Japanese government for the past year and a half kept saying that doing more PCR testing will produce a lot of faulty results and unnecessarily increase the stress on the medical system. But they have so far failed to contain COVID-19 by not testing enough people.

Adding insult to the injury, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee says they will conduct up to 70,000 tests per day to keep the Games safe. (We still don't know if these are PCR tests or antibody tests).

DM: When you and I corresponded last year for the Longreads story about anti-Olympic activists, public opinion didn't seem to strongly favor the Games anymore. But in recent months, the Japanese seem to have decidedly swung against hosting the Games, and people are being far more outspoken in their opposition. What has changed?

SI: This has been a long, difficult year for people in Japan and the world. As I mentioned above, there is an increasing discrepancy between how people in Japan have been treated during this pandemic and how the Olympic athletes and officials are treated. These are some of the examples:

  • PCR test access: People in Japan have had difficulty accessing the test. So many people who are worried that they might be infected have been refused the test because their situation doesn't meet the criteria. If you want to be tested, you have to pay a private company. But the government will provide daily tests to the Olympic-related people coming from overseas.

  • Access to hospitals: During the third wave (Nov 2020-March 2021) and the fourth wave (April 2021~ ongoing) of COVID-19 infections, there were many patients who couldn't be admitted to hospitals because there were not enough medical workers and/or hospital beds. At one point, there were over 10,000 people in Osaka alone who couldn't be hospitalized, and many died at home. Yet, there was news that the organizing committee is trying to secure hundreds of hospital beds exclusively for the Olympic athletes and officials. In addition, the organizing committee is asking for more than 500 doctors and nurses to work for the Games. But doctors and nurse associations have publicly opposed the Olympics this summer because there is already a severe shortage of doctors and nurses.

  • Access to vaccines: The rolling out of the vaccination in Japan has been very slow. As of today, less than 3 percent of the population has been vaccinated. But the IOC promised to provide vaccines to all the Olympic athletes.

  • Money: The Japanese government distributed ¥100,000 ($1,000 US approx.) only one time as a financial support during this pandemic. Many businesses, particularly restaurants, bars, and izakaya, have been forced to close or shorten their business hours without sufficient financial support from the government. Yet, there seems to be an endless amount of money available to stage the Olympics. The news of luxurious hotel rooms for the IOC executives definitely didn't make people feel good in this situation.

Another point that Japanese people are increasingly angry at the Olympics is the arrogant, condescending, and careless remarks from the IOC execs:

  •  On May 21 John Coates, an IOC vice president, drew criticism in Japan after saying the Games would proceed even if the host city was still under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus.

  • The very next day (May 22), responding to the criticism against Coates, the IOC president Thomas Bach reportedly said, “The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible.”

  • IOC committee member Dick Pound said the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead as planned unless struck by an unprecedented “Armageddon.”

    So given the frustration and fear people have, it's not hard to imagine how people in Japan have been feeling belittled and discriminated by the IOC and betrayed by the government.

DM: Opposition to the 2020/1 Olympics predates the pandemic. Activists like you and those of Hangorin no Kai have been speaking out against the Games for some time. Now that public opinion in Japan has decidedly turned against the Olympics, how can activists use that energy and opposition to push for the cancelation of the Games? Can people now speaking out against the Olympics be brought into solidarity work on other related issues like displacement?

The current opposition to staging the Olympics this summer is astonishing. Many polls show over 80 percent of the people here don't want the Olympics this summer. Even media sponsoring the Olympics began to speak against it, not to mention the medical workers, feminist groups, anti-war groups, etc. This is an unprecedented moment in Japan that this much voice of opposition is coming out for the event and that has been endorsed and strongly supported by the most powerful political players: The Japanese government, corporate sponsors, four major newspapers, and Dentsu, which dominates the Japanese advertising industry. It's important for the world to know that despite all these powerful players, they haven't been able to contain the voices of opposition.

Now, local organizers and the IOC have said that it is possible to stage the Olympics safely in Tokyo and have provided playbooks for the athletes, with guidelines such as barring them from mass transit. What have experts in Japan made of these guidelines? Do they consider them to be adequate? (CIDRAP in the U.S. has found them to be suboptimal.)

SI: Just recently, Japan's most senior medical adviser said that hosting the Olympics during a pandemic was "not normal". He is not alone in the Japanese medical community to think so. Here is a Japan Times article [that] just came out.

DM: Doctors and nurses’ groups in Japan have spoken out against sending medical personnel to the Games when they feel they are needed elsewhere in order to help fight the pandemic. Do you think that the Games will lack critical medical personnel? Also, do you think there's a chance for labor, in general, to apply pressure to halt the Games or, at the very least, extract some reforms?

SI: Even before the pandemic, there was great health concern because of the summer heat in Japan. There is also an increasing number of national teams canceling their pre-Olympic camps in Japan. This means that athletes won't have enough time to acclimatize their bodies to very hot and humid summer here. This means that there are elevated risks of injuries and illness, particularly heatstroke. Last year, around the same time the Olympics were scheduled, we had many days that the temperature reaches over 40 degrees Celsius (104F). This situation could put even more burden on the already strained medical system.

The organizing committee hasn't confirmed that they have secured all the necessary personnel. So yes, I don't think they are ready and it could get far worse. Once the Games begin, it's predictable that people want to have a party, want to go and cheer, or feel the sense of "normalcy" and want to hang out with people. With the low rate of vaccination, this increased movement of people will likely to increase the infection again this summer.

DM: One of the things you mentioned on Democracy Now was how the 2020 Tokyo Games were announced about two years after Japan suffered a tripled disaster—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown—and local organizers and the IOC dubbed them "The Recovery Games." They were supposed to symbolize Japan's recovery from this disaster. You spoke of how resources needed to help individuals and communities to recover and rebuild were diverted to staging the Olympic Games. And now there's a disaster of a different sort that's unfolding. Are people, once again, concerned that resources needed to fight COVID are being diverted to the Games?

SI: Yes, certainly. One of the biggest complaints people have, as I already mentioned in my answer to your second question, people are feeling that the resources that could be used for them are being diverted to the Olympics.

DM: Is there a reasonable chance that the Olympics will be canceled?

SI: I think most people in the world would agree that it's very reasonable to cancel the Olympics in Tokyo this summer. But the chance of them not being canceled, I think, is unreasonably high.

DM: If they aren't, what would it mean if the Olympics were to go ahead under pandemic conditions over the objections of the Japanese people?

SI: It really demonstrates very clearly to the world to see how the IOC is a super privileged group of old white men who are arrogant and make decisions based on their financial interests, not based on the democratic will or the real health risk of people in the host cities. Their handling of the situation for the past year has tarnished the Olympic brand of "peace and friendship.” The anti-Olympic activists around the world will have far more support from people in their cities than ever before.