The fact that the Tokyo Summer Olympics are now taking place in July 2021 almost one year after their original starting date in itself constitutes a great achievement that many people all over the world had serious doubts about until even very recently. This was due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the sanitary measures associated with it, including waves of confinement and travel restrictions.
In order to understand what lies behind such an achievement, it is imperative to analyse a number of factors.
The first and most important has been the will and determination of the Japanese people and government, both of which from an early stage expressed their commitment to hold the Olympics on time in 2021 and not to postpone them to a later date. This commitment expresses an integral part of the Japanese character. It has been clearly reflected in the history of Japanese society since the end of World War II in August 1945.
The destruction experienced by Japan at the end of the war was so enormous that few believed that it would ever recover from it and undergo reconstruction at an accelerated pace in just a few years’ time. However, the Japanese people did so, to the surprise of many around the globe. Their hard work and perseverance led to the appearance of “the Japanese miracle,” something which is still in evidence today and that became a model for many other countries around the world, whether inside or outside Asia.
By 1955, Japan had already gone beyond the simple reconstruction of the country after the severe damage suffered at the end of the war to launch an ambitious plan of economic recovery and had embarked on implementing a roadmap for speedy rates of economic growth accompanied by specific targets for economic, social and human-development indicators. Japan also decided at that early point to focus on heavily investing in education and scientific research and technological development.
Less than a decade later, Japan was able to host the 1964 Summer Olympics and to organise it using the state-of-the-art technology of the time. Huge infrastructure was built for the Olympics that benefitted the people and visitors to Tokyo for decades afterwards. To give just one example, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the first occasion on which the famous Japanese “Shinkansen” (bullet train) was used on a commercial basis. This is still being used today, with all the developments it has subsequently passed through, and combines high speeds with very high levels of safety and security. There have been no accidents involving the train from 1964 until today.
The challenge of hosting the 2020 Olympics, postponed to 2021, was by no means a lesser test for the Japanese will than the 1964 event. The Covid-19 pandemic from which humanity as a whole has been suffering since late 2019 has posed severe restrictions on human activity of a type that have been unknown for at least a century.
The threat to public health, the primary danger resulting from the pandemic, has necessitated the Japanese authorities putting in place a package of precautionary measures to protect the safety of its population, residents on its territory and foreign participants in the Olympic Games, as well as officials from foreign countries coming to represent their countries at the opening and closing ceremonies.
The Japanese authorities had to make difficult decisions, including banning spectators from the games. Such decisions have had negative economic ramifications for the Japanese economy and for the country’s citizens, who were expecting an economic boom from the Olympics due to the spending of millions of spectators coming from abroad. However, the clear priority was to protect public health.
Another measure undertaken by the Japanese government was the adoption of a “bubble” approach isolating visiting delegations and teams coming to participate in the Olympics from Tokyo citizens and residents, so as to protect the safety of both and ensure quick and effective containment should there be new Covid-19 cases.
Like in 1964, the Japanese authorities at both the national and local levels have undertaken preparations over the past few years to ensure that everything would be ready for the Olympics. When I had the chance to visit Tokyo in late 2019, I had the privilege of meeting Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, who last year was re-elected for a second term. In addition to being Arabic-speaking, she has a very special relationship with Egypt. She lived in Egypt when her parents were working and living here, and she studied at both Cairo University and the American University in Cairo.
During my visit to Tokyo, she spoke very proudly of the great achievements made by the Tokyo governorate in terms of infrastructure construction and modernisation in preparation for the Olympics. The amount of investment and effort and the level of perseverance and commitment were exemplary and were clear indications of the strength and steadfastness of the Japanese will.
For Egyptians in particular, the Tokyo Olympics will bring back good memories. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Egyptian national soccer team ranked fourth, the highest-ever rank it has achieved in the history of its participation. This year, all Egyptians have high expectations of winning medals in both individual and collective events at the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.
*The writer is a commentator.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.