Failed Fans, Empty Stands: Tokyo Olympics to Ban International Spectators

In a year filled with commitments withdrawn and plans rethought, the Tokyo Olympics is no exception. While foreign fans are traditionally a mainstay of the Games, the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, and Japanese agencies issued a March 20 statement barring all non-domestic spectators from attending this summer’s Games. Overseas spectators usually make up 10-20 percent of an Olympic Games’ audience, and for the Tokyo Olympics, they purchased 600,000 tickets. As organizing fees mount and public approval of the Games plummets, the ban aims to uphold public health interests and save face. However, amidst the nation’s patchwork pandemic response, the move is just a temporary fix—and one laden with ironies.

The announcement comes as Japan’s sluggish vaccine rollout has amplified calls for the Games’ outright cancellation. A March 2021 poll conducted by Japan’s Social Survey Research Center found that nearly one-third of respondents wished to cancel the Games, and over 85 percent opposed its current execution timeline. Meanwhile, Japan’s national infection rates have accelerated while its vaccine rollout remains at a crawl. Just 0.3 percent of the Japanese populace has been vaccinated. Families have been forced to maintain rigorous anti-Covid-19 practices as finances falter. As the nation’s pandemic response takes another turn for the worst, so does the nation’s support of the Games.

Then, the decision to bar foreign spectators is effectively a patchwork solution to dilute public disapproval of the Games by avoiding the influx of foreign travel that would spell further disaster. Indeed, if some Japanese people wished for the Games’ cancellation, more were united in their animosity towards the possibility of overseas fans. For example, a March 2021 poll by national newspaper outlet Yomiuri found that 18 percent of respondents would welcome foreign spectators in the stands while 77 percent of respondents balked at the very thought. The decision, nominally aimed at “ensur[ing] safe and secure Games for all participants,” extends a rhetorical olive branch towards a displeased Japanese populace.

Yet, while the decision comes in the name of public health, it leaves countless political qualms unnamed. In the wake of Japan’s pandemic mismanagement, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga scrambles to boost his public approval ahead of the late 2021 legislative elections. Suga, who spent the eight years before his prime ministership as the nation’s chief cabinet secretary and chief spokesman, is no stranger to a forceful slogan. He has repeatedly pressed ahead with the Games as “proof of humanity’s victory over the novel coronavirus.” Come July, Suga hopes to conjure feel-good support for his administration as Japan distributes medals to the Games’ victors. But where Suga is eager to distribute medals, he has still yet to distribute vaccines. Faced with a near static vaccine rollout, the Japanese populace is becoming increasingly vexed that the Games are on the calendar at all. 

Barring foreign spectators only extends that annoyance to international audiences, forced to stomach financial losses and dampened spirits. Overseas fans will receive only partial refunds to the over 600,000 tickets to the Olympic Games and 30,000 tickets to the Paralympic Games they purchased prior to the ban. To overseas fans, retrieving money spent on tickets and travel plans is a fight just starting. To pay back the $3.1 billion in Japan’s financial expenditures towards the Games—the most expensive of any Games in history—Japanese spectators may have to dig deep yet again to cover the financial strain of refunded tickets. 

 The decision to exclude foreign spectators comes as a meager concession for the Japanese people convinced that hosting the Games has caused more harm than good. As the Olympic Committees and the Japanese government push ahead with its ban on foreign spectators, costs, concerns, and controversy run rampant. As July draws near, countless phones will ring with ticket cancellations as organizers wring their hands. Meanwhile, the Japanese government continues to frame the Games as a silver bullet to reverse lagging public approval. 

Foreign spectators or not, the Olympics are a flimsy facade masking the pandemic troubles that will surely return once podiums empty and stadiums go silent.