OLYMPICS: 10,000 Volunteers Withdrawing the Latest of Tokyo’s Problems

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The Tokyo Organizing Committee for July’s rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games tried to draw attention to Thursday’s 50 days out mark, unveiling items that will be used at the medal ceremonies in Japan including the podiums, costumes worn by medal tray bears and the trays themselves.

Among the questions that could be raised at this point include: Will they have enough volunteers to hold the trays for the medal ceremonies?

More than 10 percent of the unpaid volunteers for the Games — about 10,000 in total — have told organizers they will not participate when the Olympics start on July 23 as Japan’s vaccine rollout remains remarkedly slow compared to other countries with only 3 percent of the general population fully vaccinated.

Unpaid volunteers save Olympic organizers millions of dollars. Volunteers typically get a uniform, meals and have daily commuting costs covered. A study done for the IOC on volunteers at the 2000 Sydney Olympics said their value was at least $60 million for 40,000 volunteers.

“We have not confirmed the individual reasons,” organizers said in a statement. “In addition to concerns about the coronavirus infection, some dropped out because they found it would be difficult to actually work after checking their work shift, or due to changes in their own environment.”

The 50-day countdown to the Games was marked by organizers on Thursday and given the current circumstances, it would be understandable if Tokyo’s local organizers and the International Olympic Committee wish the event would start tomorrow — if only because maybe then there would be less criticism about the runup to the Games.

Then again … the chances of said criticism lessening once the Games get underway may not be very high.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto told BBC Sport that she is “100 percent” convinced the Olympics will go ahead, adding “The question right now is how are we going to have an even more safe and secure Games.

“The Japanese people are feeling very insecure and at the same time probably feel some frustration at us talking about the Olympics and I think that is giving rise to more voices opposing having the Games in Tokyo,” Hashimoto added. “The biggest challenge will be how we can control and manage the flow of people. If an outbreak should happen during the Games times that amounts to a crisis or an emergency situation then I believe we must be prepared to have these Games without any spectators.”

The last comment from Hashimoto was a strong hint that the Japanese public will not be allowed to attend the Games; foreign fans were already banned from attending in March. When that announcement was made, organizers said a decision on local fan attendance would be revealed in April before pushing that decision off multiple times.

For its part, the IOC has been nothing if not consistent with its messaging that the Games will go on no matter the circumstances.

Senior IOC member Richard Pound told a British newspaper that “barring Armageddon” it will take place. IOC Vice President John Coates said even if Japan was still in a state of emergency, “absolutely yes” that the Olympics would go on. IOC President Thomas Bach added “everyone in the Olympic community” needs to make sacrifices, a comment that drew harsh feedback from many in the Japanese public who pointed out the IOC is booked to take up many of Tokyo’s five-star hotels during the Games.

The medical community continues to criticize the IOC’s approach, which has seemed to be “trust us, everything will be fine” without much in the way of specific details. Japan’s most senior medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that organizers should explain to the public why the Games are going ahead and “it’s not normal to hold the Olympic Games in a situation like this.”

Overnight, a Japanese Olympic Committee board member blasted organizers but admitted it was too late to cancel. Kaori Yamaguchi said in an opinion piece that “the IOC also seems to think that public opinion in Japan is not important … I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel … We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not.”

Though all the calls for another postponement or outright cancellation have received lots of attention, the simple fact is the IOC has billions of dollars at stake which is providing more than enough motivation to make sure the event is held. Approximately 75 percent of the IOC’s revenues come from worldwide broadcast rights to the Games — its single largest source of income is its TV deal with NBC — and another 18 percent comes from worldwide sponsorships. Reports estimate that the IOC will make up to $3 billion in TV rights regardless if fans are in attendance but that it would lose up to $4 billion if the Games were canceled.

While Tokyo’s preparations have been a near-daily drama, the IOC also made another announcement this week; its Coordination Commission met with the local organizing committee for Paris 2024 and “as the Tokyo 2020 Games approach, it’s clear Paris 2024 is ready and excited to take on the great responsibility of receiving the Olympic flag from Tokyo 2020,” said Coordination Commission Chair Pierre-Olivier Beckers-Vieujant said.

At this point, there’s probably no small number of people in Japan who would prefer that the flag be sent to Paris immediately.

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