The quantum mystery of the Tokyo on-off Olympic Games

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Over breakfast last week with the former chairman of one of Japan’s biggest companies, the now mandatory will-they-won’t-they-want Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games the debate started before one of us took off his coat. Despite his connections, with his former company being a sponsor and his own passion for the sport, he still couldn’t say for sure if the games would take place. Better to think of them, he says, like Schrödinger’s Olympics. As with the Austrian physicist’s hypothetical cat, the Olympics are both dead and alive in a box no one wants to open.

Like so many others, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games owe their unknowable state to Covid-19, the crisis that forced their postponement this year. Last week, the American Olympic Committee declared it would not sanction athletes who demonstrate peacefully, for example by hitting a knee, without it being clear whether Japan will fully allow the public who might see them do so.

All in all, some sort of game seems likely. But while there have been resolute words from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Tokyo organizers, inspections by Olympic VIPs in Lausanne, new estimates of rescheduling costs and even a leaked plan to cut down on crowds at the relay station. the opening flame, there is still no official. confirmation that everything is moving forward.

However, there is no confirmation that they are not. Stating that this is definitely happening raises logistical and epidemiological questions that seem impossible to put to skeptical public scrutiny, even with a working vaccine. Tokyo also knows that canceling them now, especially with Beijing eager to show it can host the 2022 Winter Games, would have repercussions beyond sports. It would be a worldwide declaration of desperation with a Japanese flag on top.

The ‘go / no-go’ question of the Tokyo Olympics – which ranges from how much Japanese immigration is expected to open to visitors, to whether cheers can be allowed at outdoor events – now competes with the weather as the standard of conversation. Many of my friends and I, who hold tickets to the Schrödinger Olympics, started the year puffed up with excitement and we can still imagine that some of that spirit is found no matter how compelled the events are. .

Even so, these Olympics have always played negatively local opinion polls and there is doubt as to their real value. The generally nervous behavior of the Japanese public around Covid-19, my breakfast mate said, suggests he is not about to relax at the thought of opening his doors in the coming months. . The delay also sharpened complaints normally blunted by the nomadic cycle of games. A big dollop of pre-game hype is fine, but no Olympics are flattered by an extra year of review.

The delay has intensified the bite of two problems. The most obvious is the financial burden borne by public funds. Even before the extra $ 2.8 billion games fitness fee next year, the whole thing would officially cost $ 12.6 billion. But the real cost, according to one estimate by the Japanese government’s own listeners, would likely double, making it the most expensive summer games ever. If you include rescheduling costs, the total bill could reach $ 30 billion – roughly the same as Estonia’s gross domestic product and a figure used by detractors to put price tags on every shot put. or javelin thrown.

The other difficult question concerns how Tokyo originally obtained the right to host the Olympics and whether certain payments and expenses fell under IOC rules. These questions are part of a broader investigation of French prosecutors in the corruption around the bidding process of these games. Under continued investigation, Tsunekazu Takeda, the former president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, who denies any wrongdoing but abruptly resigned last year before what should have been his greatest triumph.

Usually the financial burden and dark side of the Olympics are masked by the euphoria that accompanies the success of any large-scale national project and the immediacy with which attention shifts to the city that will host the games next. For Tokyo, the delay added another year of skepticism and a decrease in concerns for the cat’s health in the box.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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