Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. Good to have you with us. Here are some numbers to consider.
Speaker 1: 11,500.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's how many athletes are scheduled to compete in the Olympic Games.
Speaker 2: 339.[00:00:21]
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's how many metals those athletes are competing to win.
Speaker 3: 96.[00:00:26]
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's the number American competitors are expected to bring home.
Speaker 4: 96 of 339.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is huge for you US athletes, and these Olympics are expected to be even bigger for US media.
Speaker 1: 1.25 billion.[00:00:38]
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's how much NBC has sold in national advertising for the Tokyo Olympics. A record, which is why you'll have--
Speaker 4: 7,000[00:00:48]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hours of Olympic broadcasting to watch from your couch, which is the only place you'll get to see the games because--
Speaker 1: Zero.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is the number of live spectators allowed. Although that's not quite a true count because--
Speaker 2: 79,000.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Officials, journalists, and assistance will be onsite with the athletes. Now, these numbers aren't unrelenting drumbeat pounding beneath the upcoming games.
Speaker 3: 15.4 billion.[00:01:14]
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's how much Japan has already spent on the Tokyo Olympics and--
Speaker 2: 365.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is how many days these games have already been delayed. A delay resulting from a global pandemic that has claimed at least--
Speaker 1: 4.1 million.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lives globally, 4.1 million, which is why in a country where fewer than--
Speaker 2: One-third. [00:01:39]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of residents are vaccinated, 62% of Japanese respondents want the Olympics to be delayed, including--
Speaker 2: 6,000.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Doctors represented by the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association who say Tokyo hospitals have no capacity for additional cases. No capacity for additional cases, which leads us to one last number.
Speaker 1: More than two dozen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's the number of Olympic athletes who've already tested positive for Coronavirus and the games don't even begin until Friday. Joining me today is Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of the Edge of Sports podcast. Dave, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Dave Zirin: It's great to be here, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with me is Motoko Rich, Tokyo Bureau Chief for The New York Times. Motoko, nice to have you on the show again.
Motoko Rich: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dave, let's start with what happens when an athlete tests COVID positive and is either already there at the Olympics or on their way?
Dave: Wow. Well, it's either they're going to be sent home first and foremost, or they're going to be put if they're already in Tokyo, in a state of isolation and then they're going to be tested repeatedly. When I say repeatedly, I mean repeatedly over the course of days to make sure that they're able to compete, otherwise, they're going to remain in quarantine and sent home. This is a part of IOC president Thomas Bach's Olympic strategy that I would argue, is a fiction that somehow there's this Berlin Wall between athletes, the 80,000 visitors to Tokyo, the Coronavirus, and the citizens of Tokyo. A Berlin Wall that I think we're already seeing is filled with holes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That wall, Motoko, is exactly the concern. Can you talk about what COVID rates are like in Japan right now and how Japanese citizens are feeling about the Olympics being held there?
Motoko: Yes. In addition to the cases that we're seeing recorded both in the Olympic Village and the training area and training camps and among some of the Olympic contractors, cases are spiking in Tokyo, just among the general public. Today, in fact, there were more than 1,800 cases, which is perhaps relatively compared to other places in the world, not that high, but for Tokyo, that's a six-month high. I think people are worried. It doesn't feel like things are going in the right direction, and there's been anxiety and fatigue, frankly, for quite a number of months, a lot of confusion about what the rules actually are and how the public will be protected.
There's a lot of arguments over how the Olympic committee is going about doing that. For example, most of the venues are not allowing spectators, but there was a soccer match played in a venue up in Miyagi Prefecture. The argument was that COVID is not as bad up there, so as long as they take precautions, it's okay but I think a lot of people are feeling this sense of cognitive dissonance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about this for a second. What is vaccine access like, Motoko, for Japanese citizens, for those who are living there, if there was no Olympics coming at all? What does vaccine access look like?
Motoko: That's, I think part of the problem is that for a rich country, it's lagging far behind in terms of vaccination rates. The rollout has been very slow and deliberate. Right now, it's just above 20% that have been fully vaccinated. Compared to places like the United States or the United Kingdom, that's pretty low. I think that's what's driving a lot of the anxiety, and perhaps the spike in cases is that people are tired of all of the restrictions, so they're starting to go out again, but they haven't yet been vaccinated.
The young have by and large, not been vaccinated in Japan. They're trying to get as many people over 65 vaccinated by the end of July as possible. In Tokyo, I think that rate is actually pretty high among the 65 and over community but I think for people under that age, there are a lot of people that are still haven't gotten shots yet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Dave, I've been trying to really be as fair and open-minded about all of this, in part because, look, I'm an Olympics fan. There are some athletes I really want to see. On the other hand, when I hear these kinds of rates and the inherent life and death inequities associated with this, I'm deeply concerned. I just want to point out last month, during a conference call, NBC Universal chief executive, Jeff Shell, reportedly said, "Every Olympics has an issue that people worry about in the run-up to the games. I lived in London, everybody was worried about traffic, last time it was Zika, but then once the opening ceremony happens, everybody forgets all that and enjoys the 17 days." Dave, in what ways is COVID-19 like London traffic?
Dave: [laughs] It's not. That's the main issue. What a blind statement that is. He might as well work for the International Olympic Committee. What we're talking about is a potential super spreader event being visited upon a largely unvaccinated population with a concentrated urban core during a state of emergency. Of course, people are nervous. Of course, people are agitated.
I want to say, I was in Tokyo over the summer in 2019, obviously before COVID, doing a bit of a pre-Olympic investigation. Already I've found a lot of fatigue among the people of Tokyo with whom I spoke. Concerned about the debt and costs of the Olympics, concerned about displacement, concerned about people losing their homes, concerned about the hyper-militarization of public space that comes with the Olympics. When you layer COVID on top of that, that's why you get these in these polls with eye-popping numbers, about the number of people in Tokyo who want to see the games postponed, moved, or canceled.
That's the thing, it's like we've never seen an Olympics like this being imposed upon a population that has such resistance to the games actually being staged. What we're going to be watching on television is effectively a city and a population being held hostage to the Olympic Games.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is it at all like Brazil? Because I seem to remember talking with you years ago now about a kind of resistance, particularly among the working class and poor folks of Brazil onto those Olympics.
Dave: No, there was an intense resistance in Brazil in the communities that the Olympics were being built upon, but it was highly polarized. You had people in Brazil who saw themselves as being able to profit from the Olympics tremendously, obviously concentrated in Rio, in terms of the business community, in terms of the middle classes in Rio. They saw this as an opportunity to project Rio as a global city, meanwhile, among the poor, there was a great deal of resistance. In Tokyo, I believe you're seeing something far more widespread, far more of a cross-class, if you will, feeling and sentiment that these Olympics are not worth the cost.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering, Motoko, that final point that Dave said there, that they're not worth the costs. If we're talking about health cost, if we're talking about potential loss of human life, there is a sunk fiscal cost, there have been billions already spent, infrastructure already built. Is there any relatively reasonable argument for saying, "Look, these are expenses that we have put out as a nation. The only possibility of recouping any portion of this is to go forward."?
Motoko: I don't think they're going to have the opportunity to recoup much of it because international spectators have been banned and most domestic spectators have been banned. The upside is really already disappeared. Tokyo, in terms of being held hostage, I think it's less from the debt that the government, and the committee, and the sponsors have spent than from its actual contract with the International Olympic Committee that makes it very difficult for Japan to cancel. I think that's part of the problem. Obviously, there's no way to look at $15 billion which is the current total spending on this Olympics, and say, "Oh, that's nothing." Again, I think compared to say, a country like Brazil, Japan is a very affluent country that's still the world's third-largest economy, so that's $15 billion in the context of its total GDP is not as big as it would be for another nation. There also hasn't been quite the level of displacement of truly poor people from the favelas as there were, as I understand it, I wasn't in Rio for the Olympics, but I was reading my colleague's coverage that there was a lot more displacement of people in really dire straits. I don't think that's happened quite as much in Tokyo.
Certainly, the government is making the exact argument that you say that, "Look, before we spent all this money, we might as well go ahead." I think that the cost that people are worried about now are human health. Then I think there's just also this sense of being fed up with the lack of transparency, the messaging that's all over the places, the changes this way and that, and the feeling that the government and the Olympic committee valued the upside profit for the international Olympic committee from the television revenues and the national pride that the government wants over the human health and happiness of the community. I think there's more a sense of anger about that than this worry that somehow Japan's economy is going to collapse because of this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's helpful to remember the nation we're talking about, but maybe I'll go to exactly that point. Motoko, Thomas Bach misspoke in a press conference and called the Japanese people Chinese as though he might not, in fact, know where he was or where the games were about to be played. How has that been received?
Motoko: Well, everyone noticed for sure. As soon as he said it, trending on Twitter in Japanese was a hashtag to the effect of what will Bach do next? Making fun of him for his malapropism. I noticed that at the next press conference where he appeared, I think someone had probably written a paragraph for him or some cue cards with the words Japanese people written in block letters. I don't know, but he said those words so many times that I thought he was trying to make up for misspeaking the other time. Yes, for sure.
There is a lot of existential as the weird thing about the Olympics is one of the arguments that has been made to me by some government officials and bureaucrats, and members of the committee and some sponsors is, "Look, we don't want China to have the title of the first pandemic Olympics." That was this geopolitical reason for going ahead with these games. The fact that then he misspoke and said that I think would have touched that nerve.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dave, talk to me about sponsorship and dollars. We were talking a little bit about government spending, but of course, the sponsorship of the Olympics is huge. How significant is it that a company like Toyota is pulling its Olympic advertising in Japan?
Dave: That's stunning and stirring. That was one of those moments where I actually did a double-take at my computer because Toyota is one of the major sponsors of the Olympic games. The fact that they won't be broadcasting commercials to that effect is really striking. One reason why sponsors, who've been part of building the Olympic games since 1984, like it's a relatively recent history that sponsors have been part of the underwriting of the Olympics, that they've always loved the Olympic games because any association with the Olympics tends to burnish the company itself.
There've been a lot of companies that have more dubious records that have been absolute full-throated Olympic sponsors for the precise purpose that it activates a sin washing of whatever that corporation sins might be. Toyota is a company that's actually now stepping away from its association with the Olympics as if that association would somehow hurt Toyota instead of the vice versa dynamic of the Olympics, helping Toyota and burnish its own reputation. Also, Toyota, this is a company that says Japanese is- McDonald's is American. The idea that they're not relishing in the national pride of the Olympics, I think is something that's very striking going forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to dig into that point with me just a little bit more, because again, in reading your work and talking with you over the years, I always feel like, you've been really climbing up an uphill, pretty steep, uphill incline to make an argument that there are real problems with the Olympics. It's one thing to make that argument about the NFL or the NCAA, but everybody loves the Olympics. Is this the turning point? Is an Olympics that might have a global pandemic impact the thing that will shift us to focusing on all the various aspects of inequities associated with the games?
Dave: Not just what's happening in Tokyo, but there is already a movement in Los Angeles, which is not hosting the summer games until 2028 against the Olympics actually coming to town because displacement has already started in Los Angeles of the unhoused to create structures for those Olympic games. My colleague at the CBC, Morgan Campbell, he asked this very provocative question. He said, "Are we now in a position where the Olympics are not too big to fail but are in fact now too big to succeed?" It makes you really think about not only the post 911 security concerns, which have raised the costs of hosting the Olympics by billions of dollars, but also now for living in a pandemic world. Not a post-pandemic world, but in a pandemic world.
Even more money needs to be poured in to make sure that there's some level of safety, safety that as we're saying, can not be guaranteed between the visiting population and the populace itself. How many countries does that then limit the Olympic games to? I think we are headed towards a major turning point. My contacts inside the IOC, I said that there are forces in there who know that, who know that they can't do the old, 1990s style globe trotting around the world with billions of dollars being handed to them for the purposes of staging the games, that there's going to have to be a major rethinking about how the games themselves are staged in this kind of global economic structure.
We haven't even talked about climate change and the role of the Olympics in putting down a heavy carbon footprint that there has to be a radical rethinking of how the games are staged. If they're going to continue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What could that even begin to look like?
Dave: Well, one thing that some folks are talking about is the idea of, "Okay, we have to give up the globe-trotting." That's one of the things I know people love about the Olympics. Like, "Look, we're in Rio. Look, we're in Tokyo." That's certainly what the media loves, Melissa, this idea of people to travel, and expands out and then they glorify where they are and glorify the games themselves. That might need to change. We need to start talking about a stable location every two years. Not unlike how they do the super bowl and the NFL, frankly, which has its own problems, but it's usually limited to just a couple of cities because those cities have shown that they have the infrastructure to handle it and they have the prebuilt infrastructure to handle it.
That's what's so key is that there doesn't have to be building these kinds of structures that then have no use value after the games are done. The idea of there just being one place, or just a couple of places around the world where the Olympics are held, that might be the future that we have to look at.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Motoko, as Dave is talking about this, as we're thinking about these multiple layers of security, both a post 911 way of thinking about security, and now a biological concerns around security relative to the pandemic, and then all of these questions about built environment, we heard Bach say that the Olympics are going to require "great sacrifice from the Japanese people". I'm wondering what constitutes the sacrifice that communities are willing to make in order to host these games?
Motoko: I think it's a great question. I think before COVID, there was definitely opposition and people who can't understand why the country is spending all this money for very little upside. I think those questions are not unique to Japan by any means. I think that as the games got closer, there's certainly a sizeable portion of the Japanese public that was very excited about it, and that the signups for volunteering and for tickets were way oversubscribed. That's the evidence that people were excited about it.
Now I think the spectators can't go. A lot of the volunteers were saying, 'Well, there are no international spectators and half our job was to show them around town. What are we supposed to do?" They're even being told, 'Hide your volunteer uniforms cause nobody wants to be associated with the games." I think people feel like the sacrifice is definitely not worth it because they don't really understand what the point is. Then the possibility that the sacrifice will actually be people getting very sick, or even losing their lives. Nobody thinks that that's a sacrifice worth making.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then we're not just talking about the possibility of the people of Japan becoming sick. Is it possible that this could become a global super spreader event?
Motoko: Well, that's what I've always thought. When asking questions at these press conferences and when there's this conversation as if, and I think you mentioned that at the beginning, this idea of this wall. That there were only two populations that needed to be protected, the athletes and the participants in the Olympic bubble and the Japanese public. It's a global event and everybody's going to go home and some of them are going to bring something with them or it's possible that they could bring something with them.
That's always been my concern is not only is there a possibility of it affecting the Japanese public, there is a possibility that people will take it home on the planes and spread it all over the world. People are coming from 200 countries here. That's a question that I've always asked and wondered about, which is, 'Have those consequences been well thought out?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of the Edge of Sports podcast and Motoko Rich is the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times. Thank you both for being here.
Dave: Thank you.
Motoko: Thank you so much for having us.
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