September 29, 2021

“COVID Games” Begin in a Fearful Japan as Olympic Committee Prioritizes “Profits Over All Else”

17 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Tokyo, Japan, where protesters have gathered outside the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has pushed forward with holding the games during the pandemic despite widespread opposition in Japan. Polls show at least 70% of the population wanted the games canceled or postponed as COVID cases. At least 110 people linked to the games have tested positive for COVID so far.
The opening ceremony is being held in Tokyo’s National Stadium, but the 80,000-seat arena, built for this purpose, is largely empty. Fewer than 1,000 VIP guests have been invited to attend. Spectators have also been barred from sporting events thoughout the games. The 2020 Olympic Games were originally scheduled to take place a year ago but were postponed due to the pandemic.
We go now directly to the protests just outside Tokyo’s National Stadium, where we’re joined by Satoko Itani, associate professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Kansai University.
Itani, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you start by just setting the scene for us? Describe where you are and what these protests are about.
SATOKO ITANI: Hi, Amy. Thank you for having me back. I hope you can hear me.
I’m standing right outside of the Olympic Stadium, where the opening ceremonies are happening. And hopefully you can hear the protests as they’re happening just right now. And yeah, people — you can see the interview of the people. People are angry and are frustrated. And the opening ceremony is happening despite [inaudible] the rising cases of the COVID. And we are in a forced state of emergency. And the positive rates of the testing, the COVID testing, is above 20%. So, this is a very scary moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Satoko Itani, we’re going to come back to you. We’re having trouble hearing you because of the chants and the protest right behind you. So, as you relocate yourself, we’re going to go right now to Jules Boykoff, author of four books on the Olympics, who’s played for the U.S. Olympic soccer team from 1989 to ’91. His latest piece for The Nation, with Dave Zirin, is headlined “The Human Costs of the Pandemic Olympics.” L.A. Times opinion piece this week is headlined “Tokyo’s Olympics have turned nightmarish. L.A., are you watching?”
So, we’ll talk about the future games in L.A. But, I mean, what’s happening here is truly astounding, Jules. You have Japan itself, even the leadership, opposed, including the prime minister, to these Olympics, and yet you have what we now understand is this large multinational corporation, the International Olympic Committee, that actually can control what prime ministers and governments do and allow to happen. And they’ve required that these Olympics continue, even if the stadiums are empty.
JULES BOYKOFF: That’s exactly right. What we’re witnessing right now play out in Tokyo is unparalleled in the political history of the Olympics. And you’re pointing the finger in the right direction, when we think about the International Olympic Committee. The saga in Tokyo has exposed an International Olympic Committee that openly disrespects the will of locals, that brushes off inconvenient facts from experts, like medical experts, who have long been saying these games are a terrible idea. And the IOC tends to prioritize its profits over all else.
Meanwhile, the Olympics tend to kneecap democracy, undercut democracy, in ways that you describe, with the very prime minister essentially reduced to a contractual supplicant to the International Olympic Committee, with no power to decide whether to cancel or not. And you’re seeing also that everything is very vulnerable to things like COVID-19 and also, I think, climate change. So, when the International Olympic Committee arrives in the host city, it’s this parastate-type organization. But what we’ve seen time and time again, and now in Technicolor in Tokyo, is that it’s also a parasite on the host city.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain all that has taken place — I mean, first of all, people might be surprised these are even called Olympics 2020, when it’s 2021 — and all the skirmishes until this point. I mean, this week, the head of the Tokyo Olympics committee said, “At any moment, we can cancel these.” But, in fact, that’s not true, right?
JULES BOYKOFF: That’s correct. And Tokyo 2020 has actually been a cascade of calamities from the beginning. If we go back to 2013, when Tokyo was initially awarded the games by the International Olympic Committee, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood in front of the International Olympic Committee and said that, in Fukushima, things were “under control.” This is part of the double lie that’s the foundation of the Tokyo Olympics. If you are a self-respecting biologist or scientist in Fukushima at that time, in 2013, you knew things were very much not under control. After all, the triple-whammy earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of March 2011 was still playing out in the prefecture. So that was the first lie.
The second lie is that they started to call these Olympics the, quote-unquote, “recovery games,” arguing that by hosting the Olympics, it would actually help Fukushima and the other affected regions recover from the triple-whammy disaster. Well, when Dave Zirin and I went to Fukushima in July 2019 and we talked to journalists, we talked to elected officials, we talked to people on the ground in Fukushima, they said that that recovery games mantra was absolutely annoying and, in fact, offensive to them, because they told us how the cranes and other items that would help them recover in Fukushima were actually being transferred to Tokyo.
And even since then, it’s just been one debacle after another. The costs of the Tokyo Olympics, for example, have skyrocketed. In the bid documents, it was supposed to cost $7.3 billion. Today it stands closer to $30 billion, about more than four times the original price tag. You’ve also got the militarization of the public sphere. If you look at the Olympic Stadium, where the activists are coming to us from today, it looks like some sort of demilitarized zone, with huge fences that prevent everyday people from getting even close to the stadium.
And so, what we’ve seen in Tokyo is, in a lot of ways, a nice example, powerful example, and, you know — of what happens with the Olympics when political elites have them come to your city. It disrupts everything. And there are long-term problems that come with it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to talk about some of the amazing athletes, some who have pulled out. But before we do that, we’re going to try Satoko Itani again. This is the beauty and power and, you know, who-knows-what-happens nature of live television. But, Satoko Itani, you are right at the protest outside the Olympic Stadium, built for over 70,000 people, but it will be a fraction of that — less than a thousand will be inside, including the first lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden. But talk about why so many are where you are, outside protesting these Olympics. We didn’t hear what you said the first time, though we did hear the chants.
SATOKO ITANI: Hi, Amy. Sorry about that. I hope you can hear me now better.
AMY GOODMAN: Perfectly.
SATOKO ITANI: All right. So, the people have been frustrated actually ever since the awarding of the Olympics in 2013, because it was only two-and-a-half years after the disaster. And since then, with the neoliberal policies, people’s lives are getting harder and harder. And when it comes to the Olympics, it seems like there are endless resource and money that they can pour into.
But also, like the past year, since the beginning of the pandemic, we are told to not go outside, and the restaurants are forced to close. And we are told that we cannot get PCR testing, because it results in false positives, that are not good for controlling the virus. And yet, when you look at the Olympics, you know, the tens of thousands of delegates are coming into Japan, and many of them are not even staying in the protect — following through the quarantine rules. Even Thomas Bach, he went to Hiroshima, only three days — right? — of the quarantine. And the hibakusha have been very angry about this. Like, do not use the Olympics to peacewash the — do not use the Hiroshima to peacewash the Olympics. And also, like, the PCR testing part, if they are going to test the Olympic athletes every day to keep us safe, why they didn’t provide that to the Japanese people? I haven’t gotten even one PCR test over the past year and a half.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Satoko Itani, can you talk about Toyota? Spent a billion dollars to promote the games, now has removed all Olympic-related commercials — meaning commercials that include the Olympics, that are so often played through the games — because of their embarrassment that this is moving forward. And apparently, the head of Toyota said these games shouldn’t be moving forward.
SATOKO ITANI: Right. I mean, as you mentioned, the vast majority of Japanese people don’t want this games. And people are seriously really concerned about their own lives. And if you look at the sponsors making a lot of money off of these games that people’s lives might be at risk, it is a really damaging image, right? So, this is quite historic that the Olympic sponsors thought their association with the Olympics is a negative.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your biggest concerns with the Olympic athletes? I mean, at this point, we see something like over a hundred have tested positive, coming in from all over the world, not just athletes, but staff. And those numbers only increase. A number of other athletes, actually, have just quit, saying they can’t deal with the pressure and the isolation. But talk about what people are asking for instead.
SATOKO ITANI: Well, a lot of people that I speak to here, especially the ones protesting, are asking for the cancellation immediately and as soon as possible, because the bubble that they say, you know, isn’t working — as you just mentioned, over a hundred cases now. So, athletes and visitors are not protected. And the public of Japanese people here are also not protected.
And what’s really concerning is that the number of the new infection is going up quite rapidly, largely due to the Delta variant coming in. But because of the Olympics is happening, the government has been really failed to stop that coming into Japan. So, we are the — sorry, the researchers are warning that there will be over 3,000 cases in Tokyo alone, daily, within maybe a few weeks. And yeah, this is a really, really serious situation. And the hospital is already strained.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the hospitals, and also marginalized communities, like the LGBTQ+ community, and how they’re affected? And how many people are vaccinated? What percentage of the people of Japan have access to vaccines?
SATOKO ITANI: So, we started to hear reports from the hospitals that their beds are starting to fill up, and there are actually thousands of cases of — thousands of people waiting to be hospitalized. This means that their situation, although their condition is worsening fast and they should be hospitalized, but they cannot find the hospital beds to go into. And just about 23% of Japanese people, or the residents of Japan, have been fully vaccinated. So 80% of people are not.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us back to Jules Boykoff, with this mass protest happening, even the highest levels of Japanese government not wanting this to go forward, but basically IOC says a deal is a deal. Talk about how much money they make off these Olympics. NBC paid a fortune for running the Olympics over the years. They will broadcast — not clear what they will show of the stadiums, since there are very few people, outside of the athletes performing.
JULES BOYKOFF: That’s right. There is a lot of money sloshing through the Olympic system. It just tends to slosh upwards into pockets that are already filled. NBC gives about 40% of the International Olympic Committee’s revenues. And overall, in terms of the Olympics, 73% of the revenues for the International Olympic Committee come from broadcaster fees. And I think that helps explain why they’re perfectly content to have a made-for-TV event without all those people in the stands. Of course, they’d prefer to have them in the stands, but even if they don’t, the money continues to flow into their coffers. NBC has announced that even though these games are hit with the pandemic and people won’t be in the seats, this could well be the most profitable Olympics ever for NBC because of ad sales and other measures.
The corporate sponsors provide another 18% of the revenues for the International Olympic Committee. And I think we’re seeing a really interesting divide between the corporate sponsors right now. On one hand, the sort of long-term, worldwide partners that fork over these nine-figure fees to be associated with the five rings, they’re basically playing the long game, with the exception of Toyota, which of course has strong base in Japan. The local sponsors, domestic sponsors — by which, by the way, they raised more than $3 billion from local corporate sponsors in Japan, more than ever before — they’re in a much trickier position. And I think that’s why you’re seeing Toyota basically say out loud that the Olympics have become a toxic property inside of Japan.
So, there’s plenty of money to be had. It just tends to shuffle to the International Olympic Committee, to broadcasters, to the corporate partners, as well as to real estate interests in the Olympic city.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s see, I think NBC has paid something like $7.7 billion to air the Olympics through 2032. Jules Boykoff, I mean, you played in the Olympics years ago. Let’s talk about some of the people who have pulled out, like the two-time U.S. Paralympic swimmer Becca Meyers, who’s won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. But she announced Tuesday she’s withdrawn from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, after being denied an essential medical accommodation. Meyers was born deaf with progressive sight loss due to Usher syndrome. In an emotional opinion piece for USA Today, she wrote, quote, “Since 2017, the [United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee] has approved the use of a personal care assistant (PCA) whom I know and trust to be with me at international swim meets because of my disabilities. But not this year. … What happens if there is an emergency in the middle of the night? What if we need to be moved from one venue to another quickly? Masks and distancing have made it incredibly difficult for me to make out what people are doing or saying. If I don’t have someone I can trust, how can I trust that I will be safe?” Meyers wrote. She spoke on CNN about her decision.

BECCA MEYERS: I’m heartbroken. I can’t even put it into words. I haven’t been sleeping well. I haven’t been eating. It’s just tore me apart. Swimming is a part of who I am. It’s given me identity as a person. I’ve always been known as Becca the swimmer, not Becca the deaf-blind person. And now I feel very worthless as a person. And for someone who’s trained for five years for this moment, especially an extra year with the pandemic, it just makes it all seem like it was for nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Becca Meyers speaking on CNN. She’s blind. She cannot hear. She was going with her mother, who has been her personal assistant, but they said no, that there was personal assistants there, something like, for a couple dozen people, only one — something, of course, that would not be adequate for her. So she has pulled out. Jules, can you tell us more? And also, the role of the Paralympics? They’re not going to be broadcast by NBC live during this time, is that right?
JULES BOYKOFF: Well, so, first let me just say, Amy, that while I did play soccer for the U-23 national team in the United States, also known as the Olympic team, I did not actually participate in the Olympics. So I just want to be clear about that.
But, you know, the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, has been saying over and over again, as if repeating this mantra could make it true, that the games are supposed to be “safe and secure.” At every turn, they’ve said these games will be safe and secure. Well, if they’re so safe and secure, then why are we seeing all these cases even inside the Olympic bubble? Which, as Itani just pointed out, it’s already been punctured. If the games are so safe and secure, why are athletes being forced to sign a waiver that states that if they die of coronavirus or from heatstroke, that they cannot hold the Olympic organizers liable? If these games are so safe and secure, the why did The New England Journal of Medicine come out with an editorial that just excoriated the International Olympic Committee for its preparations for the COVID-19 crisis in Tokyo? They said that they were not putting forth best scientific practices. They don’t even provide masks to the people that are going to Tokyo. So it’s a BYOM situation, a bring-your-own-mask situation.
The International Olympic Committee likes to talk about how athletes are first. That’s one of their mantras. Also same with the International Paralympic Committee. But when you hear the case of Becca Meyers — my goodness, how poignant that is — it’s just so heartbreaking. And it’s hard to take that slogan, “athletes first,” very seriously when you hear that.
And one last point on the athletes, if I may say: A really important study came out recently from Ryerson University that compared the percentage of revenues that Olympians get compared to athletes from other sports, like the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the English Premier League of football over in the U.K. And what they found in that study was, with those other leagues, those other professional leagues, the athletes took in between 45 and 60% of the revenues. With the Olympics, Olympians only take in 4.1% of the revenues — 4.1% compared to 45 to 60%. So Olympians aren’t even getting a fair share of the Olympic money pie. And that very much has to change.
And one exciting thing is that we’re seeing athletes around the world begin to really come together and organize around these issues and support each other — groups like Global Athlete, an athlete-led group that’s out there fighting for justice, groups like the Athletic Association in track and field, groups like the newly formed International Swimmers’ Alliance. They’re realizing that if athletes want to get more of a fair shake at the games, that they need to come together and organize independent of the Olympic honchos.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to say, the Paralympics actually take place not right now, but from August 24th until September 5th. I want to ask about the Spanish Olympic swimmer Ona Carbonell, who has criticized the Olympic committee for imposing rules that made it nearly impossible for her to continue breastfeeding her child while at the Olympics. On Wednesday, she released a video expressing her disappointment and disillusionment after she decided she cannot bring her breastfeeding son to Tokyo while she competes.

ONA CARBONELL: [translated] So, I had to take a very tough decision, together with my team, who’s been helping me a lot, with my family, because the Japanese government’s impositions are not compatible with my athletic performance and being with my family at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Jules Boykoff?
JULES BOYKOFF: Again, another heart-wrenching story that we’re hearing out of the Olympic zone. And basically, she was forced to choose between her family and her Olympic dream. The International Olympic Committee did loosen its rules, after a lot of pressure from these organized athletes that I was talking about. At the end of June, they said that mothers who were nursing could continue to do so during the Olympics, but under very strict conditions, where the baby would be kept in a hotel far away from the Olympic zone. And the athlete that you were just talking about, Ona Carbonell, said that this would actually be more dangerous. I mean, if she had to travel to a hotel, where the baby would be for 20 days in quarantine, and then travel back into the Olympic Village, that’s, again, just not best scientific practices. And I think it just points to the fact that the International Olympic Committee is making athletes take terrible choices out there, very heart-wrenching choices. And I really feel for that athlete, of course, in this situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jules Boykoff, the message for Los Angeles? And explain when the Olympics are in Los Angeles and what this means.
JULES BOYKOFF: Los Angeles is slated to host the 2028 Summer Olympics. And they were originally awarded the games in 2017. That’s unconventional, such an 11-year lead time. And what we’ve seen since then is the efflorescence of an anti-Olympics movement here in Los Angeles, where I’m coming to you from, a group called NOlympics LA, that emerged out of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. And they’ve been fighting on the ground since 2017 to raise awareness about the downsides of the Olympics.
People here in Los Angeles who are trying to bring the games, who are going to bring the games, it looks like, to Los Angeles, have long said that costs are not a problem, they’re not going to go up. Well, they’ve already gone up. In the bid, they were $5.3 billion, and now they’ve been updated to $6.9 billion.
But more importantly for the activists here in Los Angeles, they’re talking about how the Olympics are stoking gentrification in the city, stoking the displacement of working populations in this town, and also militarizing the public sphere. Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics, that if you look back at media coverage of that time, you’ll hear a journalist saying that the real sound of the Olympics was a helicopter blade whirring above. And a lot of the equipment that was purchased for the 1984 Olympics was then turned around and used in the racialized drug war here in Los Angeles, because that’s what happens with the Olympics. Because they’re such a huge spectacle, they necessitate a massive security infrastructure. Well, they don’t put that stuff back in the box and just return to sender. That sticks around and becomes part of normal policing.
So, you’re seeing a lot of pushback. And because of the fact, here in Los Angeles, that they were awarded the games 11 years in advance, it’s actually a chance for activists to have a little bit more time to organize than is typical around the Olympics. But, you know, Los Angeles should be looking at what’s happening in Tokyo and be aware of what could possibly happen here, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Jules Boykoff, I want to thank you for being with us, author of four books on the Olympics. And, Satoko Itani, associate professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Kansai University, we have 20 seconds. What’s the plans for the coming days?
SATOKO ITANI: So, the protesters will continue protesting. And we have to make our voices heard, because these Olympics have shown, even when we are in the global pandemic, and even when the majority of people opposing, our voices cannot be heard and the Olympics must go on. And we have to keep saying no. And hopefully, the future Olympians — NOlympians will address this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Satoko Itani, speaking to us from outside the Olympic Stadium, where major protests are taking place.
Coming up, Indigenous leader Winona LaDuke and Reverend Liz Theoharis, two women in two different places in the United States, will talk about why they were arrested this week. First we’ll go to Minnesota, where Winona LaDuke has just been released from jail. Stay with us.