Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori (Image: AP/Joan Monfort)

Japan is in the grip of a devastating COVID-19 wave, averaging over 5000 new cases a day since late April. This weekend, Tokyo recorded its highest case count since January. The state of emergency has been extended.

And still, in 73 days, the Olympic Games is going ahead — even if when they do they’ll be a shadow of the usual spectacle, conducted in a sterile, fearful bubble, in front of half-empty stadiums, without the influx of foreign fans that bring the host city to life.

The games will still go ahead and Australia will still send our athletes despite the risk. Because at this point, there’s simply too much at stake.

Pride and money

In 1940, Tokyo lost its Olympics thanks to World War II. It lost again last year, but the city, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), are determined to soldier on in July — despite nearly three-quarters of Japanese people being opposed to the games going ahead. In Tokyo and Osaka, the nation’s largest cities, health systems are teetering on the brink of collapse. The vaccine rollout is perilously slow, with less than 2% of the population inoculated.

It could still unravel further. In the last few weeks, local politicians have hinted at the possibility of cancelling the Olympics altogether if things get too bad. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because a year ago, the games were always going to continue in 2020, until suddenly, they weren’t. Overnight, Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori raised concerns over whether the games should go ahead.

At this point, however, there may be too much money at stake to back down. The games have blown out to $15 billion. If they’re cancelled altogether, the potential insurance bill could be up to $3 billion. The IOC, heavily reliant on television rights, would lose about $1 billion if the games were cancelled altogether.

Then there’s the matter of pride. Japan lost its Olympics once already (although it got another in 1964). It doesn’t want to lose another one, after pulling out all the stops for the games to go ahead. There’s a stubbornness among the organisers who want Tokyo to host the first post-pandemic games ahead of China’s 2022 Winter Olympics.

All about politics

Australia’s involvement at Tokyo isn’t in question — athletes started getting their fast-tracked vaccines yesterday, even as high-risk groups wait. Many competitors have reported surging levels of anxiety and mental health referrals ahead of the games.

In April, Minister for Sport Richard Colbeck sounded resigned when he admitted it was “inevitable” that the virus would be present at the games. He didn’t commit to attending, but noted a key reason for an Australian presence: Brisbane is currently the IOC’s favoured host for the 2032 games, and the announcement is due right before Tokyo is meant to begin. Australia getting antsy about whether to go to Japan could undermine our bid.

Our unquestionable involvement shows how the decision to withdraw from the Olympics is one steeped in politics, rather than health.

It is politics, rather than anything else, that explains past Olympic boycotts — the US not sending athletes to Moscow in 1980 at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets doing the same at the Los Angeles games four years later. It explains why the only country to pull out of Tokyo so far is North Korea.

And it explains why there’s far more of a push to skip the 2022 Beijing games, over widespread criticism of China’s attempted genocide of the Uyghurs, than there is to not attend Tokyo. Several hawkish MPs have raised the alarm about boycotting, and there’s a push across the West not to attend, as geopolitical tensions with China ramp up.

It would be politically harmful to Australia’s inexplicable 2032 aspirations to go cold on Tokyo. Given the open hostility towards China and our comfort with an increasingly tense relationship, boycotting Beijing might not be so risky.

Still, no matter what happens in July, the next few Olympic Games won’t be the same. Tokyo’s games will be tainted by the spectre of death. Beijing’s will be tainted by the spectre of human rights abuses and boycotts. Paris and LA will then host Olympics they got because nobody else wanted them.

By the time Brisbane does get its turn, will anybody still be watching?

Do you think the Tokyo games should go ahead? And should Australian athletes attend? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.