COVID, scandals and controversies taint Tokyo Olympics

Thursday, 22 July 2021 (21:55 IST)
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stumbled into a new scandal on Thursday, just hours before the official opening event at the new National Stadium, with a senior organizer of the event dismissed for jokes that he made in the past about the Holocaust.

Kentaro Kobayashi, a comedian and one of the creative directors of Friday evening's opening ceremony, was fired after it was learned that he had made antisemitic jokes in a comedy act in 1998, including using the phrase "Let's play Holocaust."

In a statement issued on Thursday, Kobayashi said: "I understand that my stupid choice of words at that time was wrong, and I regret it. To those I made feel uncomfortable, I am sorry."

Organizers have attempted to swiftly draw a line under the incident, but it is only the latest in a long series of problems that have plagued the Tokyo Games.

Though the coronavirus pandemic was arguably impossible to foresee and very difficult to defend against, a lot of the other issues that have tarnished the largest sporting event in Japan's history are the result of poor judgment on the part of individuals.

Tokyo Olympics 'cursed'

Taken together, the crises surrounding the games tend to lend credence to the complaint last year by Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister, that the 2020 Olympics appeared to be "cursed."

"I find it incredible that the organizers are only finding out now, the day before the grand opening ceremony, what this guy said about the Holocaust," said Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

"A simple YouTube search would have found this, so why was he not vetted?" he told DW. "From a public relations perspective, it is a complete nightmare, but made far worse because there have been other similar problems with people involved in the games."

On Monday, the creative director for the music for the opening ceremony for both the Olympics and the subsequent Paralympics, resigned after an apology failed to assuage public criticism for his bullying of children with developmental disabilities when he was in his teens.

Another comedian brought into the opening ceremony was also forced out after suggesting that a plus-size female model be dressed as a pig for an event that will be watched by billions of people around the world.

In March, Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister who was the head of the local organizing committee, resigned after declaring that committee meetings with women always ran on for too long.

Two athletes test positive

On Thursday, it was announced that two more athletes — Dutch skateboarder Candy Jacobs and Czech table tennis player Pavel Sirucek — and 10 support staff tested positive for COVID-19. That brings the total number of those associated with the Games to have coronavirus to 87, with at least three of the cases detected within the Olympic Village.

The virus is continuing to spread among the Japanese public as well, with the more virulent delta variant accounting for a majority of the new cases in Tokyo. Health authorities on Wednesday reported 1,832 new cases in the capital, the highest single-day figure since mid-January and up by 683 cases from seven days previously.

Experts have warned that the situation is going to get worse in the short term, with a panel that is advising the Tokyo Metropolitan Government predicting that the situation will be "more critical than during the third wave" of the pandemic by the end of next week. New cases could reach record highs of 2,600 cases a day while the games are still on and put the nation's medical facilities under intense pressure.

Hotter than usual

And if a deepening health crisis and embarrassing PR goals were not enough, there is growing concern over temperatures and humidity levels that are higher than usual for this time of year in Japan and could potentially be another hazard for athletes, organizers and volunteers at the games.

A training session for beach volleyball was delayed earlier this week because the sand was too hot for the players' feet, with temperatures rising to 34 degrees Celsius (93 F) in the capital on Tuesday. Tokyo was 33 C on Thursday afternoon, but, combined with humidity close to 60%, the "feels like" temperature was close to 39 degrees.

Two years ago, it was decided to move the marathon and road walking races to the city of Sapporo, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Tokyo, to take advantage of the cooler summer conditions — but that city has been sweltering in the highest temperatures for more than 20 years this week.

"I have lived in Sapporo for many years, and I cannot recall temperatures in the mid-30s this early in the summer," Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, told DW.

"City officials are issuing warnings every day about the heat and telling people to make sure they drink lots of water, but it is going to be very hard for the marathon athletes to compete when it is this hot," she said.

"I don't think many new records are going to be set at these Olympics," she added.

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