IOC official suddenly quite unpopular in Japan

(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

In case you’re not familiar with John Coates, he’s the President of the Australian Olympic Committee and a vice president on the International Olympic Committee. As such, he has a lot riding on the upcoming Olympic Games in both Japan and China. But in the Land of the Rising Sun, Mr. Coates has suddenly developed a serious public relations problem. He managed to put his foot in his mouth last week by making one of the more innocuous statements I can recall in recent history. When reporters from Japan asked him if the Olympic Games were going to go ahead as planned even as Japan is experiencing a new surge in COVID cases, he responded by saying that they would. And that was apparently enough to send the Japanese public into a frenzy. (Associated Press)

If John Coates was trying to stir controversy, he succeeded.

An International Olympic Committee vice president, Coates was asked a few days ago by a Japanese reporter at an online news conference if the Tokyo Olympics would go ahead, even if a state of emergency were in force in Japan. Coates replied: “Absolutely, yes.”

Coates said what the IOC and local organizers have been trying to persuade the Japanese public about for months: The postponed Olympics with 11,000 athletes from 200 nations and territories will open on July 23 and will be “safe and secure.”

I’m guessing that Coates wasn’t expecting the backlash that he’s been receiving. After all, he’s a member of the IOC. What did you expect him to say when asked if he thought the games should go forward? The committee is clearly going to try to paint a happy face on the situation and keep proceeding as if the games will take place up until the point where they won’t. (If that point arrives, anyway.)

That’s not going to make the Japanese people any happier, however. Every recent poll of the public there shows that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of respondents do not want the games to go forward while the virus is still ripping through Japan’s major population centers. It’s turned into a serious political football and brought the Prime Minister under harsh criticism from both the opposition party and the media.

Japan’s death toll still hasn’t reached “staggering” levels, but the case numbers are continuing to head in the wrong direction. At the same time, the effort to vaccinate the public has moved at a snail’s pace. The government currently claims that somewhere between two and four percent of eligible adults have been immunized. In response, it was announced this weekend that they would be opening a pair of mass vaccination centers with only two months to go before the scheduled opening of the games.

Japan mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday as the government desperately tries to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb coronavirus infections just two months before hosting the Olympics.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Olympics in Tokyo after a one-year delay and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite skepticism it’s possible. Worries about public safety while many Japanese remain unvaccinated have prompted growing protests and calls for canceling the games, set to start on July 23.

While I can appreciate the situation that Suga is in, does this even sound remotely plausible? The Prime Minister is talking about trying to vaccinate 36 million people in less than 60 days when they haven’t even set up the basic infrastructure to do mass vaccinations as we have in the United States. Can he even get his hands on that many doses that quickly? And even then, he’s only talking about vaccinating the senior citizens. I somehow doubt that they would be making up a majority of the people attending the games in person.

On top of that, there will only be two mass vaccination pods under Suga’s plan located in two cities. The Japanese people are spread over a significant number of islands and travel is currently heavily restricted. America has been hounding people to get vaccinated in every way possible for nearly five months now and we’re barely to the 50% mark. Suga has worked with Pfizer to provide free vaccines to all of the athletes who attend, which is great, but I think the public is more concerned about the fans in the stands. If the Olympic Games go forward and this turns into a superspreader event like none other seen in Asia, Yoshihide Suga’s political career may be toast. And he might take John Coates down with him.