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The Tokyo Olympic Games End On Sunday. But At What Cost?


The Olympics are due to wrap up tomorrow in Tokyo. And now people, especially in Japan, have started to try and tally up the political, economic and public health costs of the only Olympics ever held during a pandemic. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The official verdict on the games came Friday from International Olympic chief Thomas Bach. He told a press conference that Tokyo had proved to be the best-prepared host city ever. But he also claimed that the record-high numbers of COVID-19 infections now sweeping Tokyo have no direct or indirect links to the games. Tsuyoshi Masuda, head of the Japan Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions, disagrees.

TSUYOSHI MASUDA: (Through translator) Above all, I think that holding the Olympics sent a strong message to citizens that infection control measures would become less strict.

KUHN: Masuda is also director of the Kyodo Hospital in Saitama just outside Tokyo.

MASUDA: (Through translator) When I asked a young patient in his 20s how he was feeling, he clearly said it does not make sense that we refrain from going out ourselves while the Olympics are being held. So in that sense, to put it simply, the Olympics have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 here.

KUHN: On the economic side, losses, including from the postponement of the Olympics by one year and the ban on spectators, could end up costing Japan, by some estimates, around $23 billion. But that's nothing to a $5 trillion economy.

JESPER KOLL: The economic impact, the pure numerical impact, is basically a rounding error on the overall economy.

KUHN: Jesper Koll, CEO of WisdomTree Japan, a securities and asset management firm, says Japanese had hoped for a boost to the country's image and its corporations.

KOLL: It was going to showcase cool Japan, you know, the lifestyle superpower that particularly Tokyo is.

KUHN: But foreigners could not get into the country to be wowed by it. And some Olympic corporate sponsors distanced themselves from an event that lacked popular support. Koll says Japan's big haul of gold medals helped that a bit.

KOLL: The positive brand impact is not going to be as large as it would have been with the inbound visitors. But it's still going to be an overall positive impact for Japan's brand image in the rest of the world.

KUHN: Another way to judge gains and losses is to measure them against what Japan's government promised its people when Tokyo won the right to host the games eight years ago.




TOM LEE: The government pitched it as, like, the recovery games.

KUHN: Tom Lee is a Japan expert and associate professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. He says the government told the people the games would jumpstart their economy after more than two decades of stagnation and the damage of a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. And he says the games might have been the catalyst for reforms to pull Japan out of its malaise.

LEE: Hosting these Olympics would have put the spotlight on Japan, would have been an opportunity for them to try new things, to kind of shake things up.

KUHN: But Lee says the government missed its chance. And its stubborn refusal to yield in the face of the pandemic or public opinion against the games emphasized Japanese leaders' sense of political impunity. After all, he notes, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for most of the past seven decades.

LEE: I think it fits into this general government arrogance that they felt like they could control COVID in a certain kind of way.

KUHN: Lee gives Japan credit, saying that if anyone could have held the game successfully under tough conditions, it was Japan. But he says not even one of the world's wealthiest, most industrialized nations could bend a pandemic to its will and put on the show it had envisioned. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.