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No Tokyo Olympics: As COVID Spikes in Japan, Calls Grow to Cancel Games. IOC Refuses. Who Profits?

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Image Credit: Viola Kam/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters

Pressure is growing on organizers to cancel the Tokyo Olympics as Japan struggles to contain a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases. The games, which were delayed by a year due to the pandemic, are scheduled to begin July 23 even though less than 3% of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in the developed world. Jules Boykoff, author and former Olympic athlete who played for the U.S. Olympic soccer team, says the “extremely lopsided” contracts the International Olympic Committee signs with host countries give the body ultimate authority over whether or not to cancel the event. “More than 80% of the people in Japan oppose hosting the Olympics this summer, and yet the IOC insists on pressing ahead,” says Boykoff. We also speak with Satoko Itani, professor of sport, gender and sexuality studies at Kansai University, who says there is growing public anger at the government and a “sense of unfairness” that the games are going ahead during a pandemic. “They feel that the people are not protected,” they say.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Japan, where COVID-19 is spiking amidst mounting opposition to the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were delayed by a year because of the pandemic and are scheduled to open July 23rd. This week, Japanese leaders extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and other major cities for several weeks into June because of the pandemic. On Tuesday, leading newspaper Asahi Shimbun, one of the Olympic sponsors, called for cancellation of the games in an explosive editorial, writing they’re, quote, “simply beyond reason to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.” Meanwhile, the head of a Japanese doctors’ union warned against bringing tens of thousands of people from more than 200 countries and territories to Japan, where less than 3% of the population is fully vaccinated.

NAOTO UEYAMA: [translated] In order to win the battle against the coronavirus, we need to stop preparing for the games. And that is why we are calling for the Tokyo Games to be canceled. … There is a possibility that the South African and the Indian variants could spread around the world through the Olympics. And we also cannot deny the possibility of a new variant being generated after the games. … If that were to happen, it would be called the Tokyo Olympics variant, and holding the games will be condemned in the next hundred years as a foolish act of mankind.

AMY GOODMAN: An open letter of over 6,000 doctors also called for the cancellation of the Olympics. Despite these concerns and ongoing protests, Japanese officials, Olympics organizers and the International Olympic Committee have all vowed the games will go ahead as a televised event with no foreign spectators. The IOC depends on selling broadcast rights for 75% of its income.

Meanwhile, an online petition with more than 350,000 signatures calling for the Tokyo Games to be canceled has been submitted to the International Olympic Committee and others. This is Misako Ichimura, a homeless activist and artist, who’s one of the founding members of the anti-Olympics group Hangorin No Kai in Tokyo.

MISAKO ICHIMURA: [translated] Amidst a spike in COVID-19 infections and an increasingly critical situation for people, the Olympic organizers have resumed preparation for the Olympic Games after a temporary pause. In the vicinity of the stadiums, they have begun setting up an exclusive zone, pushing out the houseless people who have been living there. Construction for the venues has contributed to serious deforestation of the local park. It is also pushing the users of the park into a small area, making it difficult for people to keep social distance. On the road where many ambulances are driving tirelessly, brand-new exclusive lanes for the Olympics are being built.

With 80% of the Japanese public reported to be opposed to the games, and the growing rallying cry to cancel the Olympics, the torch relay has faced protesters everywhere in Japan. It is not welcomed at all. In an attempt to silence the calls for cancellation, the organizers repeat the slogan “safe and secure,” but they have no grounds for it. They prioritize the people who are related to the Olympics. The fact that our lives and health are being taken lightly further angers people.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Misako Ichimura with the Tokyo anti-Olympics group.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Nishinomiya, Japan, Satoko Itani is with us, an associate professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Kansai University and a leading Japanese critic of the games. Also with us, from Portland, Oregon, is Jules Boykoff, scholar and former Olympic athlete who played for the U.S. Olympic soccer team from 1989 to 1991. He has published several pieces, his latest this morning in The Washington Post, “Tokyo is learning that the only force stronger than a pandemic is the Olympics.” His guest essay in The New York Times is headlined “A Sports Event Shouldn’t Be a Superspreader. Cancel the Olympics.” He’s written four books about the Olympics, his latest headlined NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jules, I want to begin with you. For people to understand, who decides if the Olympics in Japan are canceled? This may shock people. I mean, wouldn’t the country decide, the country of Japan? Talk about the power of the International Olympic Committee.

JULES BOYKOFF: Each time an Olympic host city gets ready to start the games, they need to sign a host city contract with the International Olympic Committee. Those contracts are extremely lopsided in favor of the International Olympic Committee, and it gives them — and only them — the power to cancel the Olympics in a case like this. So, when the prime minister of Japan states in public, under pressure from people in Japan and around the world to cancel the Olympics — when the prime minister states in public that he actually doesn’t have the power to cancel the Olympics, he’s absolutely correct.

And that’s part of a larger state of exception that comes into the Olympic city when the Olympics arrive on your doorstep. There are all sorts of special laws that are put into place, all sorts of special rules that are put into place. New technologies are secured for the Olympics. So, for example, in Tokyo, you see facial recognition systems being put in place at all Olympic venues, even though they’re known for having a racial bias. Security forces use the Olympics to get all the special weapons and funding they’d normally never be able to get during normal political times.

And so, that’s exactly what we’re seeing transpire here. The all-powerful IOC, that is really a privileged sliver of the global 1%, is exerting itself and forcing the games ahead against the will of the population. More than 80% of the people in Japan oppose hosting the Olympics this summer, and yet the IOC insists on pressing ahead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Satoko Itani, if you could explain what the significance is of one of the key sponsors of the Olympics and a major newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, coming out against, saying that the Olympics should not be held? Was that a surprise in Japan? And are you expecting other sponsors to also come out in opposition?

SATOKO ITANI: Hi, Nermeen. And hi, Amy. First of all, thank you so much for having me today on your show.

In terms of the significance of The Asahi Shimbun speaking against the Olympics is that, well, I have to say first, it came too late. To me, now they are taking the side against the Olympics, because it is becoming very clear the public will not support this Olympics, and they will face — continue to face the harsh criticism after the Olympics are over.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about the fact that there’s such widespread opposition? As Jules just mentioned, over 80% of the public in Japan are opposed to the Olympics taking place. How are they expressing their opposition? And what kind of response has the government in Japan given to the opposition?

SATOKO ITANI: Well, yes, so, there have been many protests, from many years ago. Ever since the beginning — ever since the game was awarded to Tokyo, which was 2013, there are small groups of anti-Olympic activists have been speaking tirelessly against the Olympics and pointing out many issues, way before the pandemic hit Japan. And after the torch relay began, not just these main groups that have been working for years, there are smaller groups of people popping out in many parts of the Japan against the torch relay and the Olympics itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Satoko Itani, can you talk about the level of protest? I mean, you have 6,000 doctors calling for the cancellation. You have the torch group, the ones that are running to ultimately light the torch in Tokyo; a number of them are now COVID-positive. You have thousands of athletes coming from around the world, many from countries that have not gotten vaccines — the countries themselves, let alone the athletes. And vaccines are not being required at the Olympics.

SATOKO ITANI: So, obviously, there is a great health risk, public health risks, not just to Japan, but around the world. And again, as you pointed out, Amy, there are less than 3% of the population in Japan currently has been vaccinated.

And going back to your earlier question, the government of Japan have only repeated that their decision — they don’t have a power to decide; the IOC has. And the only response the IOC has had to the people’s opposition or the people’s protests are that, no matter what, even if the Japan or the host city is under the state of emergency, the game will go on. And Dick Pound recently said that the Olympics will succeed and will be held, unless there is an unprecedented armageddon. And this is the voices that we’ve been hearing.

So, reasonably, people in Japan are increasingly angry and feeling the great sense of unfairness and the wrong priorities on the part of the IOC organizing committee and the Japanese government. They feel that the people are not protected.

But I have to emphasize, Amy, this did not just start after the beginning of the pandemic. When the game was awarded in 2013, it was only two years after the Japan experienced this triple disaster of a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. And we knew, the public knew, it was going to require a huge amount of money and resources to recover from that. But all these moneys and resources have been put towards the Olympics, and the recovery itself has been delayed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jules Boykoff, could you respond to the fact — I mean, a number of people have, of course, expressed dissatisfaction with the measures that the Olympic organizers in Tokyo have put in place. What are some of those measures? I mean, The New England Journal of Medicine came out saying that those measures are insufficient, but the article’s lead author suggested that appropriate and safe measures could be put in place and the games could go ahead. She did not say that it was necessary to cancel the Olympics.

JULES BOYKOFF: So, the International Olympic Committee, in conjunction with Tokyo organizers, have issued what they call playbooks for different groups of people that will be attending the Olympics, whether they’re athletes, whether they’re journalists, whether they’re volunteers. And these playbooks lay out in clear terms what is going to be in place in terms of these measures. And that New England Journal of Medicine article that you mentioned basically pointed out that a lot of what are in these playbooks is essentially hygiene theater, talking about cleaning off surfaces and things that everybody knows at this point, like wearing a mask and social distancing and so on.

The fact of the matter is, it’s incredibly difficult to pull that off with such a huge mega-event like the Olympics. We’re talking about 11,000 athletes for the Olympics. Eighty thousand people or so will be coming into the country from all around the world, as you mentioned, none of whom will be required to be vaccinated, none of whom will be quarantined, and many of whom can’t actually get a vaccination because they’re too young. Many Olympic sports have people in them who are not 15 years old. It depends on the sport, and they determine the age. So, there’s all sorts of complicating factors. And that’s not even to bring in the Paralympics, where you have many athletes who will be especially susceptible to coronavirus and all its variants. And so, the International Olympic Committee has come under all sorts of pressure about these playbooks.

One other thing about them, though, an athlete who is Tokyo-bound, who I’ve been in communication with, recently shared with me a waiver, basically, that they are being asked to sign in order to participate in the Olympics. And when I read this waiver, I found it brazen. It said explicitly in the waiver that if this individual were to contract coronavirus and, in fact, die, they would not hold liable the responsible parties for the Olympics. And this is something the individual is being asked to sign just to participate in the Olympics. Now, as an athlete, I’ve signed plenty of waivers in my life, but seeing just it spelled out in such terms, I found quite ghastly. And that’s what we’re really looking at here. We’re looking at the International Olympic Committee that seems to be perfectly willing to have people in Tokyo and Japan dying so that they can make a killing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the IOC, to play a clip of the IOC officials who held a news conference in Tokyo talking about — well, President Seiko Hashimoto tried to reassure reporters about the effectiveness of the organization’s protocols.

SEIKO HASHIMOTO: [translated] From February to mid-May, about a thousand people had been given a special grant to enter Japan, where Tokyo 2020 took the responsibility for their entry. There was one person that tested positive at the airport, but zero cases during the 14-day period where activities were restricted. This proved the coronavirus measures from the second version of the playbook actually worked.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jules Boykoff, if you can talk about this remarkable situation where you have a country that’s spiking with COVID and you have this enormous pressure of the IOC? It could be that country IOCs will go bankrupt if, again, the Olympics aren’t held? If you can talk more about the big business of the IOC and also about the athletes? What happens to athletes who have been preparing for these years?

JULES BOYKOFF: Yeah, well, listening to the officials in Tokyo, as well as the International Olympic Committee, sounds a bit like a parrot enrolled in a repetition contest on Groundhog’s Day. They say the same thing over and over and over again about how we’re going to have a safe Olympics.

But you’re right: Money machinations are definitely happening behind the scenes, and that really animates why we’re seeing the Olympics press ahead under pandemic conditions. As you mentioned in the lead-in, the International Olympic Committee gets around 75% of its revenues from broadcasters in the United States, like NBC — almost 75%. Add to that another 18% from corporate sponsors, like Coca-Cola, Alibaba, etc., and you’re looking at more than $9 out of every $10 that lands in the International Olympic Committee’s coffers coming from those two sources. So, with that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that the International Olympic Committee would be willing to hold a made-for-TV event, with no people in the stands, if necessary, because if you can put the event on television, then you can have that money flowing into your coffers.

They make the argument that they spread the money out to the world. And that is true, to a certain degree. They do share quite a bit of the revenues to sporting groups, national Olympic committees around the world and international federations of sport. But whether that really means that we should go ahead with an Olympics under pandemic conditions is another matter. I guess I am just a little bit more willing to listen to the medical experts than I am to people who have a vested economic interest in pulling off these Olympics.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Satoko Itani, very quickly, before we conclude, could you explain what you think some of the reasons are that Japan has such a low rate of vaccination — in fact, the lowest of all OECD countries?

SATOKO ITANI: Well, I think the first is a failure of the diplomacy. During 2020, many countries made efforts to acquire the vaccine. Because Japan doesn’t make its own vaccination, it was essential, but the government failed to acquire them. And now the number seems to be available, but the distribution has been very poor. So, because of the poor distribution plan, the cities around the country are scrambling to figure out where to vaccinate, in what order, and how to transport. So, the government has majorly failed to create this distribution plan. And this is partly because of their failure to predict this pandemic. The China or the Korea have the experience of previous SARS epidemic, and they have set up, and they have prepared, since then, to respond to this situation. But the Japanese government haven’t. What they have done instead was reducing the number of hospital beds, reducing the number of funding for the public hospitals.

AMY GOODMAN: And also, if you could address this issue of the International Olympic Committee once again talking about politics and banning expression of politics, the Olympics banning Black Lives Matter apparel, and the recent vote to uphold a rule that prohibits any kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda? Today, in our headlines, we just reported on the death of Lee Evans, who, a few days after the world-renowned protest in the Mexico City Olympics of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, when they put up their hand in the Black Power salute, he did that very thing as the U.S. national anthem played, protesting for Black power in the United States, against poverty and for human rights. Can you talk about that power of the IOC to say no to those kinds of expressions, and what that means for Japan?

SATOKO ITANI: Well, the IOC has used this policy to really suppress and silence the opposing voices. And this is going to be a major issue in Japan, because if you look at — what the pandemic has shown is that this is a very political event. The decisions to protect the people in Japan have been even compromised because the IOC has such huge power and money interest. And yet to say that the people in Japan and the athletes cannot voice is only protect the IOC, and it shows that they do not care what happens to the people in the hosting countries and to the athletes.


SATOKO ITANI: So, this really speaks to the fallacy of the Olympic brand and Olympism.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us. Just a comment, though this is not the Olympics: At the last U.S. Open, during the tournament, Naomi Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and a Haitian American father, donned seven masks, each bearing the name of a Black person who was killed by police: Breonna Tylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.

Satoko Itani, I want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Kansai University, and also Jules Boykoff, former Olympic athlete, author of four books on the Olympics. We’ll link to your two pieces in The Washington Post and The New York Times, as you speak to us from Portland, Oregon.

Next up, President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to determine if the virus was accidentally leaked from a Chinese lab. We’ll look at this and other COVID issues with Dr. Monica Gandhi. Stay with us.

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Dr. Monica Gandhi on the Origins of COVID-19, Vaccine Equity, the Debate over Masks & More

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