How Japan is scrambling to save the Tokyo Olympics

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On a recent Sunday, tens of thousands of fans flooded a baseball stadium in Yokohama, Japan, with the venue nearing full capacity for the first time since the beginning of the global pandemic. Before they could take their seats, spectators had their temperatures checked and were asked to download an app that would notify them if anyone in the vicinity of their seats tested positive for Covid-19 after the game.
During the action, ultra-high definition cameras scanned the crowd to pinpoint fans who weren’t wearing masks, and security guards patrolled the stands to stop them from cheering loudly. Bluetooth beacons installed throughout the stadium fed data about the number of people in any given area, such as bathrooms or at vendors, to spectators in real-time via an app to avoid overcrowding. Meanwhile, sensors placed in the stands measured carbon dioxide levels and wind-speeds to analyse particle dispersal.

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The game, between a hometown favourite and a rival team from western Japan, was the first in the country to allow a nearly full stadium of fans. For some, it seemed to mark the return to a pre-pandemic time, while for others, the measures weren’t enough to make the anxieties disappear. “The fact that the stadium was packed with people was anxiety-inducing,” says Kouya Takatori, a die-hard fan of the local DeNa Baystars, who hadn’t attended any of the team’s games this year. “There were people who shouted when someone scored, even though guards told them off.”
With just eight months to go until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese officials and game organisers are rushing to stage the event safely and avoid a scenario in which the competitions turn into a gigantic super-spreader event. Officials have pointed to trial events such as the baseball game in Yokohama as models for how they plan to host the Olympics, which were delayed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
At a press conference in Tokyo last Monday, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said the success of the baseball game in Yokohama was proof next year’s competitions could be held with a “reasonable” number of fans in stadiums. Bach’s whirlwind tour of Japan, during which he stressed the Games will take place and met with the country’s new prime minister Yoshihide Suga, coincided with a second wave of deadly infections sweeping across Europe and the United States. Japan, which has dodged the kind of high death tolls and severe lockdowns experienced elsewhere in the world, reported a record number of daily infections on Wednesday.
As part of his two-day visit to Tokyo, Bach repeatedly touted a “toolbox” of coronavirus measures the IOC and Japan would use to make the event as safe as possible, though he avoided specifying what those tools were.

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Among the measures under consideration by the Japanese government is the use of facial recognition technology to trace infected people and their possible contacts. Last month, local media reported that the Japanese government is weighing the use of facial recognition technology to monitor athletes leaving and entering the Olympic Village and training sites next summer, to ensure that they stick to social distancing rules.
But even with such innovative solutions, the safety of athletes, spectators, and staff, is likely to rest on lower-tech approaches like frequent testing, quarantine, and social distancing during the events. Recent developments in vaccines have also raised hopes. At the press conference on Monday, Bach said positive developments on Covid-19 vaccines and rapid testing made him confident the Olympics could go ahead with spectators.
“In order to protect the Japanese people, and out of respect for the Japanese people, the IOC will undertake great effort so that as many as possible – Olympic participants and visitors will arrive here vaccinated if, by then, a vaccine is available,” he said. Later, Bach added that vaccinations would not be mandatory for athletes.
With the Olympics in mind, Japan has secured more than half a billion doses of different vaccines for 2021, for a population of about 126.5 million. The country has signed deals with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, both companies that have seen encouraging results in recent vaccine studies.

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Still, critics say that even if a vaccine is available by the time the Olympics begin, it is not guaranteed that athletes or staff will receive it in time. Producing and distributing vaccines is a logistical challenge. Public opinion in Japan remains split on whether Tokyo should stage the Games as planned. A recent survey by public broadcaster NHK found that 70 per cent of people in Japan believe the competitions should be further delayed or canceled. Meanwhile, a Reuters poll of businesses found a majority in support of the Games going ahead as planned in July.
“It’s probable that by the time the Olympics and Paralympics roll around, there will only be a partial vaccination around the world,” Jonathan Finnoff, the chief medical officer of the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee, told The Wall Street Journal this week, adding that the Olympics should instead be thought of as a “non-vaccinated Games.”
In a most likely scenario, next year’s Olympics could mirror a gymnastics meet held earlier this month in Tokyo. Athletes from four countries, including Japan, traveled to the capital for the gymnastics competition. During the event, spectators had to wear masks and keep shouting to a minimum, while the competing athletes were asked to keep a GPS enabled phone with them most of the time for contact tracing. A machine sprayed them with a disinfectant mist before they entered the arena.
“Definitely one of the weirdest competitions that I’ve been a part of,” says Paul Juda, an American athlete who attended the trial event. Before arriving in Japan, Juda and his fellow athletes were required to quarantine for two weeks and they were tested for coronavirus several times. Juda says he was excited to travel to Tokyo, but that he spent most of his time not competing or eating locked in his hotel room. The only glimpse he got of the city was from his window.
Still, Juda thinks these requirements were necessary. “It was a stretch for USA athletes to even be allowed into Japan where they have such a good handle on the virus,” he says. “So the surveys, the testing, and the constant thermometer checks were all necessary precautions that had to be done if we wanted to be there in the first place.”
Before they were cancelled, the Olympic and Paralympic Games were expected to be attended by more than 15,000 athletes. Even if they go ahead without spectators, bringing so many people in safely will present a huge logistical challenge, but Juda is confident it can be done. “I personally felt very safe during the event, [but] I could see why people might think that this is potentially impossible to do at a larger scale,” he says. “The Olympics have thousands of athletes but, if they are able to use the same techniques that they did on my trip. Then I think that it could be done with ease.”

Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.

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