Yuhei Inoue

According to the latest poll conducted by NHK, approximately 80 per cent of Japanese people think Tokyo 2020 should be postponed or cancelled.

A prevalent view is that this sentiment has resulted from the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in Japan and the public’s fear that the hosting will contribute to further infections.

An even more optimistic view may be that once COVID-19 cases decline, more Japanese citizens will be in favour of hosting the Tokyo 2020 Games this summer. 

However, these viewpoints do not fully explain why nearly 40 per cent of those surveyed advocated for the complete cancellation of Tokyo 2020, rather than postponing the event until it can be safely held.

Indeed, even during last summer when the country reported much lower COVID-19 cases, approximately one-third of Japanese citizens expressed their support for cancelling the Games.

But why has the mega-event, once projected to bring an economic impact of more than £200 billion ($275 billion/€230 billion) to the host country, become unpopular among Japanese people?

Drawing upon academic research on sports events, together with my observation of current discussions taking place in Japan, I argue that Japanese citizens' increasing lack of support toward Tokyo 2020 reflects changes in their assessment about the relative benefits and costs of hosting the Games.

To be more specific, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, most Japanese people welcomed Tokyo 2020, as they believed the benefits of hosting the Games, primarily in the form of economic impacts, would outweigh its costs.

Polls show public support for staging the Olympics and Paralympics this year is low in Japan ©Getty Images
Polls show public support for staging the Olympics and Paralympics this year is low in Japan ©Getty Images

This belief was reflected in the results of NHK’s earlier poll conducted in 2019.

In this poll, about 90 per cent of the respondents agreed that hosting Tokyo 2020 would be positive for Japan, with "contribution to the country’s economy" and "the revitalisation of the country" being among the most-cited outcomes respondents had expected from hosting the event.

Since the virus outbreak, however, numerous media outlets have reported that the postponement of the Games would cost the host country billions, most of which will be covered by tax money.

These financial costs, along with intangible costs such as the perceived risks of infection, have led Japanese people to think that the costs of hosting Tokyo 2020 would outweigh its economic benefits, with the latter being likely reduced by travel- and event-related restrictions.

So what can Tokyo 2020 organisers, who are the strongest advocate for hosting the Games this summer, do to regain the public's support toward the eventual hosting of the mega-event?

According to academic research, residents support the hosting of a sports event when they see that it can produce more benefits than costs.

If we assume that this notion is applicable to Tokyo 2020, then the solution to be taken by its organisers seems to be straightforward: maximising residents’ perceptions of the benefits of hosting the Games amidst COVID-19 so that these perceptions will outweigh their cost perceptions.

This is, in my opinion, where Tokyo 2020 organisers have failed.

They have so far rarely communicated to the Japanese public how hosting the Tokyo 2020 Games this summer, despite the restrictions and risks associated with COVID-19, could benefit the country and its people.

And even to date, the economic impact rationale, which is no longer convincing to most Japanese people, is still the dominant rhetoric used by the organisers to justify the Games.

Emphasizing non-economic benefits of the Olympics is likely to be key in organisers regaining public support for staging the event ©Getty Images
Emphasizing non-economic benefits of the Olympics is likely to be key in organisers regaining public support for staging the event ©Getty Images

An alternative rationale for hosting the Games

In the absence of substantial economic benefits, an alternative type of non-economic benefit the Tokyo 2020 organisers can advocate for is "psychic income", namely, psychological and emotional benefits - such as an engendered sense of civic pride and community attachment - as a result of successful hosting.

While this might sound trivial, there is an increasing body of empirical evidence that psychic income can serve as a viable alternative to oft-refuted economic impacts.

Importantly, psychic income is said to occur even when residents do not physically attend a sports event - an important feature given the possibility that the Games will be closed to the public.

Yet the academic literature suggests there are some pre-conditions for psychic income to be realised without event attendance.

First, organisers must attach their events to a special meaning that can band residents together.

Consider, for example, the National Football League’s decision to give free tickets for Super Bowl LV to 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers, most of whom are local to Tampa.

This gesture of appreciation, as well as the staging of a pre-game performance by Amanda Gorman, the United States' first youth poet laureate, to honour those who have served during the COVID-19 crisis, has added societal significance to the Super Bowl.

Tokyo 2020 organisers might adopt similar efforts to advance the event as a symbol for recovery, healing, and appreciation and actively communicate such efforts to make Japanese people think that the Games are meaningful to them and their country.

Second, residents’ perceptions of psychic income are enhanced when there are positive social interactions surrounding the event.

During COVID-19, this will be difficult due to social distancing and other prevention measures.

Nevertheless, there is an abundance of digital technologies, such as video-calling apps, Tokyo 2020 organisers can leverage to organise social events and activities across Japan before and during the Games to engage Japanese citizens with the event and increase their interactions.

The Olympic Torch Relay could be one way organisers foster a sense of inclusion in the Olympics among the Japanese public ©Getty Images
The Olympic Torch Relay could be one way organisers foster a sense of inclusion in the Olympics among the Japanese public ©Getty Images

Third, a sense of trust toward event organisers is a key factor affecting residents’ perceptions of psychic income.

To earn trust, Tokyo 2020 organisers should be transparent about every decision they make in relation to how they prepare for and operate the event and actively communicate their decisions to the public.

Finally, residents’ perceptions of psychic income are closely tied to how non-resident outsiders view the event and its hosting.

If residents feel that hosting enhances the image of the host country or city from the eyes of outsiders, then they tend to experience greater psychic income.

In this regard, it would be important that the international sport community, especially Olympians and officials from the International Olympic Committee and other governing bodies, assist Tokyo 2020 organisers with their communication efforts.

For example, those individuals can show gratitude for, and make positive remarks about, the sacrifice that Japanese people in general, and Tokyo residents in particular, will make to contribute to the successful hosting of the Games.

Of course, it is entirely possible that, regardless of all the efforts outlined above, the situation may not allow Japan to host the Games this summer, and I support the hosting only if residents’ safety is secured.

However, the worst-case scenario would be that Tokyo 2020 organisers are "forced" to cancel the Games because of the Japanese public’s strong opposition, or their total lack of support.

The cancellation of Tokyo 2020, driven by the Japanese public, will be devastating and should be avoided as - beyond the detrimental financial impacts of the cancellation - it can signal to the world that sports events are unworthy investments, inhibiting the (re)development of the sport industry in the post-COVID-19 era.