Michael Pavitt

Two Mayoral candidates have taken very different approaches to the Olympic Games this week, with one calling for a cancellation and another viewing a potential bid as a vote-winning ploy.

Veteran Japanese lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya launched the widely reported petition urging the cancellation of Tokyo 2020. Currently the petition, labelled "Cancel the Tokyo Olympics to protect our lives", has garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

The first thing to say is that an online petition is both easy to sign and global in its nature, arguably representing more of a protest than a concerted effort to call the Games off.

After all, Utsunomiya received 844,151 votes from Tokyo residents last year when campaigning on a platform to cancel the Olympic and Paralympic Games due to the pandemic. The three-time candidate securing 13.76 per cent of the vote to finish second.

The petition seems unlikely to put the brakes on the Games, with Tokyo 2020 and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) train now appearing too far down the tracks.

As others have noted, recent vaccine deals, Tokyo 2020 test events and constant reshaping of the qualification process for the Games highlight the IOC's will to push on.

When deciding on a 2021 date last year, both the IOC and the Japanese Government must have known they were embarking a rocky road and been prepared to brace themselves for criticism if and when COVID-19 cases rise in the host nation and beyond.

Of course, the rapidly growing list of signatures on the petition should be noted and will make for uncomfortable reading for the Japanese Government, with elections on the horizon. Utsunomiya has already demonstrated through the petition how anti-Olympic sentiment could lead to a potential backlash later this year.

In the longer term, it will be interesting to see whether the IOC will face a backlash for Tokyo 2020 taking place, whether the event is held successfully or becomes the "super-spreader" event the most ardent of critics have warned of.

Growing anti-Olympic sentiment has been reported in Japan ©Getty Images
Growing anti-Olympic sentiment has been reported in Japan ©Getty Images

The organisation, whether it likes it or not, will be viewed by some as caring more about securing revenues from Tokyo 2020 than the potential health risks to the host city.

If we take the views of politicians elsewhere as an early indicator, the IOC might emerge relatively unscathed.

The challenges of Tokyo 2020 and the upcoming controversy surrounding Beijing 2022’s hosting of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games might well have seen the appetite for the Games diminish somewhat, with politicians cautious of talking about future Olympic bids.

Yet, this week has seen Brisbane 2032 move a step closer to signing on the dotted line for the 2032 Olympic Games, with Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates saying the IOC is now in the due diligence phase.

Should Brisbane 2032 as expected pass its equivalent of a sporting medical, Tokyo 2020 will likely be the location for the award.

Labour politician Sadiq Khan also must have considered the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a net positive for his re-election campaign as London Mayor this week, perhaps playing on the positive memories many have from London 2012.

"Exploring a bid for the 2036 or 2040 Olympic and Paralympic Games is the ultimate demonstration of my plan to build a brighter future for London after the pandemic," Khan said this week.

"Not only would future London Olympics bring the world’s finest sportsmen and women to London, it would help fast track much-needed green infrastructure projects such as Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo Line extension, bringing with them long-term jobs and investment.”

Sadiq Khan pledged to explore a future Olympic and Paralympic bid during his London Mayoral election campaign ©Getty Images
Sadiq Khan pledged to explore a future Olympic and Paralympic bid during his London Mayoral election campaign ©Getty Images

Both UK Sport and the British Olympic Association have offered tentative support to Khan’s idea, but both stressed there have been no talks on the topic to date. The BOA would have to lead any effort should it occur.

The current trend would likely see a wider British bid rather than another London-focused offering, which may be temper Khan’s words somewhat.

UK Sport and the BOA both highlighted the 15-year gap between Khan’s pledge to establish an exploratory committee and the next feasible Games that Britain could host in 2036.

The smart money would be to suggest such a move would be premature. Yet, Los Angeles 2028 and Brisbane 2032 both appear on course to have been awarded Olympics 11 years out, so perhaps Khan’s pledge is not quite as outlandish as it may seem at first.

With Paris, Los Angeles and Brisbane already effectively secured and interest from the likes of Budapest, Doha and London still, the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games seem to be in relatively sound shape all things considered. 

The fallout from whatever happens at Tokyo 2020 and the cost of the Games will still be significant issues to address and interrogate with the Summer Olympics and Paralympics though.

I wonder whether the impact of Tokyo 2020 might be felt more keenly around the Winter Olympics, where the organisaton has already found hosts hard to come by for a variety of reasons. Be it the scarcity of possible venues, public opposition or high costs.

A Sapporo bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics could be impacted by anti-Olympic sentiment around Tokyo 2020 ©ITG
A Sapporo bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics could be impacted by anti-Olympic sentiment around Tokyo 2020 ©ITG

IOC President Thomas Bach, when announcing the establishment of Future Host Commissions in 2019, said priority would be given to determining host for the 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games and 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games, rather than the 2032 Summer Games.

Of course, priorities can clearly change and dramatically so during a pandemic. The IOC would undoubtedly point to the opportunity of Brisbane as being too good to turn down given the current circumstances.

I wonder too whether priorities may have also changed in Japan.

Sapporo was viewed as the favourite for the 2030 Winter Olympics at the start of last year, when Bach said the city had a very strong foundation for a bid. 

The Japanese city, rather than Brisbane, was the logical bet to be awarded an Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020, continuing a strong partnership between the IOC and Japan.

Given the growing anti-Olympic sentiment and fatigue in Japan around Tokyo 2020, would any potential Government be dissuaded from going near another bid for the foreseeable future?

Salt Lake City and Barcelona have been viewed as other potential candidates, while a small sample of fewer than 1,000 people in Vancouver this week suggested marginal support for a Winter Olympic and Paralympic bid.

The 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics will surely be the next Games to consider for the IOC after Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 are negotiated. 

Will politicians and the public view recent months as an isolated case and back a Games? Or could there be greater reluctance to pursue a bid?