Paralympic closing marks end of Tokyo’s 8-year Olympic saga
The final act of the delayed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics came Sunday, almost eight years to the day after the Japanese capital was awarded the Games.
The Paralympics ended a 13-day run in a colorful, circus-like ceremony at the National Stadium overseen by Crown Prince Akishino, the brother of Emperor Naruhito. The Olympics closed almost a month ago.
These were unprecedented Olympics and Paralympics, postponed for a year and marked by footnotes and asterisks. No fans were allowed during the Olympics, except for a few thousand at outlying venues away from Tokyo. A few thousand school children were allowed into some Paralympic venues.
“There were many times when we thought these games could not happen," Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee, said on Sunday. "There were many sleepless nights.”
The closing ceremony was entitled “Harmonious Cacophony” and involved both able-bodied actors and others with disabilities. The theme was described by organizers as a “world inspired by the Paralympics, one where differences shine.”
Like the Olympics, the Paralympics went ahead as Tokyo was under a state of emergency due to the pandemic. Like the Olympics, testing athletes frequently and isolating them in a bubble kept the virus largely at bay, though cases surged among a Japanese population that is now almost 50% fully vaccinated.
“I believe that we have reached the end of games without any major problems,” said Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee.
But there was fallout, however. Lots of it.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday — two days before the closing — that he would not continue in office. Suga hoped to get a reelection bump from the Olympics. He got the opposite as his approval rating plummeted after a slow vaccine rollout in Japan, and a contentious decision to stage the Games during the pandemic.
Suga succeeded Shinzo Abe, who resigned a year ago for health reasons. It was Abe who celebrated in the front row of a Buenos Aires hotel ballroom on Sept. 7, 2013, when then-IOC President Jacques Rogge announced Tokyo as the 2020 host — ahead of Istanbul and Madrid.
In a sad coincidence, Rogge died a week ago at 79 after being in poor health.
“Now that Prime Minister Suga is forced out, taking the blame for his failure to combat the coronavirus, it would be impossible to claim that the Olympics and Paralympics were successful, a unifying moments for Japan,” Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The Paralympics may leave a more tangible legacy in Japan than the Olympics, raising public awareness about people with disabilities and the provision of accessible public space.
The Paralympics involved a record number of athletes — 4,405 — and a record number of countries won medals. They also saw two athletes from Afghanistan compete, both of whom arrived several days late after fleeing Kabul.
“The Tokyo Games were a model of efficiency and friendliness,” Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said in an email to The Associated Press. “If it hadn’t been for the COVID-related difficulties, these would be right at or near the top of the best-organized of the 19 Olympics — Summer and Winter — I have attended.”
The costs also set records.
A study by the University of Oxford found these to be the most expensive Games on record. Japan officially spent $15.4 billion to organize the Olympics and Paralympics, double the original estimate. Several government audits suggested the real costs are twice that. All but $6.7 billion is public money.
The pandemic probably cost organizers almost $800 million in lost ticket sales, a budget shortfall that will have to be made up by more government funds. In addition, local sponsors contributed more than $3 billion to the operating budget, but got little return with few fans.
Toyota, a major Olympics sponsor, pulled its Games-related television advertising in Japan because of public opposition to the Games.
Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee and a former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan, framed the costs as an investment. He acknowledged that it’s difficult to sort out what are — and what are not — Olympic costs.
“It has to be scrutinized further to segregate which part is investment and which part is expenditure,” Muto said in an interview last week. “It’s difficult to define the difference.”
Tokyo was also haunted by a vote-buying scandal during the bid process that forced the resignation 2 1/2 years ago of Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda. He was also an International Olympic Committee member.
Next up are the Beijing Winter Olympics, opening in five month. They have been billed as the “Genocide Games” by rights groups that want the Games pulled from China because of the reported internment of at least 1 million Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang in northwestern China.
The US Department of State and several other governments have called the human rights violations in Xinjiang a genocide, and one major IOC sponsor — Intel — has said it agrees with the characterization.
“The COVID-related restrictions that were imposed in Tokyo are like a dream come true for the Chinese dictatorship,” Wallechinsky said. “No foreign spectators, fewer foreign media; just what the Communist Party leadership would want. Will athletes protest, and if they do, what will the Chinese do? Deport them? Arrest them? We don’t know.”
The IOC, which pushed for Tokyo to go ahead and generated about $3 billion-$4 billion in television income, has already lined up the next three Summer Olympics; Paris in 2024, Los Angeles in 2028, and Brisbane, Australia, in 2032.
The Winter Olympics after Beijing are in Milan-Cortina in Italy in 2026.
“I believe the IOC has to be greatly relieved that the next Games will be in France, Italy and the United States,” Wallechinsky said. “Both Paris and Los Angeles are cities with venues and infrastructure that are already well in place.”
Hashimoto, the head of the organizing committee, indicated Sunday that Sapporo would bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. It was the host city in 1972.
“For 2030, Sapporo will definitely become a candidate,” Hashimoto said. “I would hope this would become a reality.”