Are the Tokyo Olympics cursed?

People look at an Olympics rings monument lit up after sunset in Tokyo on July 21, 2021, two days ahead of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony.

Tokyo last hosted the summer Olympics in 1964, when Japan was still trying to restore its tarnished image after World War II. The Games went off swimmingly, and Japan raked in praise.

Indeed, Tokyo was hoping that the 2020 Olympics would be another 1964. But since COVID entered the scene, everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong.

The Olympics that no one wants have so far been crippled by a series of crises and controversies that have overshadowed the sporting events. Here's a look at where things currently stand.

COVID outbreaks and vaccinations. Tallying the number of new COVID infections inside the Olympic Village has become a sport in and of itself. Since participants started arriving earlier this month, more than 70 people at the Tokyo Olympic Village have tested positive. Athletes who have spent years training for the event, like US tennis superstar Coco Gauff, have been forced to pull out, shattering dreams years in the making.

When Dick Pound — a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee — was asked recently what keeps him up at night, he said, unequivocally: a massive COVID outbreak at the Tokyo Games. For now, athletes who test positive are isolated and required to quarantine for 14 days. But how many cases would be enough to force a cancellation? What if infections spread to local communities? No one at the IOC seems to have answers to these questions.

Some observers say that a vaccine mandate would have circumvented the problem. But the IOC lacks the authority to enforce such a scheme, and the Japanese government — for a variety of political and economic reasons — opted not to. Moreover, many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, would have struggled to secure enough doses for their full teams to compete because their vaccine supplies remain low.

Japan's tough choice. Yoshihide Suga, Japan's prime minister, is not a popular man. For months, Suga has insisted that the show must go on despite more than 62 percent of Japanese opposing it, fearing the Games will be a super-spreader event for the dominant delta COVID variant. He is now hemorrhaging support, recording a net approval rating of -34. Indeed, survey after survey shows that the Olympics has been a massive factor behind the ruling Liberal Democratic Party cratering support ahead of national elections to be held this fall.

But the Japanese government has been caught between a rock and a hard place when trying to balance its economic commitments with public health concerns. Holding the Games without spectators is a massive blow to the country's beleaguered tourism sector (one Japanese professor estimates that the country stands to lose up to $23 billion). Still, the Japanese government was likely hoping that the events would spark some income-stimulating activities from the tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, support staff, film crews, and reporters who are flying in.

And Suga, for his part, probably hopes that pulling off a successful Olympics will help prop up his popularity ahead of an LDP leadership vote in September, as well as general elections, which have to take place by October 22. But, for now, that strategy appears to have blown up in the PM's face: one government official recently said that he was "not expecting any [economic] effect" from the Olympics at all.

A new rulebook for activism. This will be the first Olympics to take place since the 2020 killing of George Floyd in the US, which sparked a global reckoning with racism. Symbolic protest, particularly at large cultural and sporting events, has become a key part of the racial justice movement's modus operandi. The IOC has responded to the emotionally-charged moment by relaxing its rules on athletes expressing their political views (like kneeling before a game or wearing symbolic clothing) so long as they don't interfere with the competitions or official ceremonies.

While some critics say this is a tokenistic gesture and doesn't go far enough in allowing freedom of political expression, the IOC says this actually reflects most athletes' preferences. Regardless, trying to redefine the complex relationship between sports and politics at a time of heightened global sensitivity to race relations comes at the worst possible time for both racial justice advocates, who'll be protesting in empty stadiums, and for the IOC, which can no longer afford to straddle on such a fraught issue, especially for young fans.

There is, however, a sizable cohort that wants the Games to proceed: athletes. Participants from some 200 countries have spent years training for these Olympics, and recent disruptions have dealt a devastating blow to them and their support teams. For them, the stakes of the Tokyo Games are very, very high.

What responsibility do wealthy nations have to ensure the least developed countries aren't left behind? Have we actually made any progress since the COVID-19 outbreak? Today at 11am ET/8am PT, join GZERO Media and Microsoft for a live Global Stage discussion: Unfinished Business: Is the world really building back better?

The New Yorker's Susan Glasser will moderate a discussion with Brad Smith, President and Vice Chair, Microsoft; David Malpass, President, World Bank Group; Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media; and Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme. Special appearance by António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

Watch LIVE today, Wednesday 9/22 at 11am ET/ 8am PT/ 5pm CEST at

Sign up here to get updates about this and other upcoming GZERO Media events.

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

How will the QUAD leaders address the microchip supply chain issue during their meeting this week?

Well, the idea for leaders of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, is to collaborate more intensively on building secure supply chains for semiconductors, and that is in response to China's growing assertiveness. I think it's remarkable to see that values are becoming much more clearly articulated by world leaders when they're talking about governing advanced technologies. The current draft statement ahead of the QUAD meeting says that collaboration should be based on the rule of respecting human rights.

More Show less

On the one hand, UN Secretary-General António Guterres believes COVID has fractured trust between mainly rich and poor countries, especially on vaccines, as the pandemic "demonstrated our enormous fragility." On the other hand, it generated more trust in science, especially on climate — practically the only area, Guterres says, where the US and China can find some common ground these days. Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

Well, we're in the thick of "high-level week" for the United Nations General Assembly, known as UNGA. As always, the busiest few days in global diplomacy are about more than just speeches and hellish midtown traffic in Manhattan. Here are a few things we are keeping an eye on as UNGA reaches peak intensity over in Turtle Bay.

More Show less

Ahead of the 76th UN General Assembly, the US and the EU both agreed to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by the end of the decade to reduce global warming. Will they convince other top emitters like China, Russia and India to do the same before the COP26 climate summit in November? This would be a big deal, because methane emissions, one-quarter of which come from agriculture, are the biggest contributors to climate change after carbon dioxide — and 80 times more potent in warming the planet. We take a look at the world's top methane emitters, compared with their respective carbon dioxide emissions.

Most of the hard-hitting conversations at the UN General Assembly take place behind closed doors. Still, during High-Level Week, when leaders get up to speak at the podium, it's their one big shot to send a message to representatives from the entire world. Here's some of what went down today:

More Show less

Imagine you're China. How would you feel if the some of the world's richest and most powerful countries, the US and its allies, were constantly joining forces against you, yet officially pretending not to?

More Show less

6.4 million: More than 6.4 million viewers tuned in live to watch K-pop band BTS give a speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday, where they called for young people to get vaccinated and become involved in fighting climate change. It's the most-watched clip ever on the UN's YouTube channel, shattering the previous record set by Emma Watson in 2014. By contrast, only a few thousand viewers checked out US President Biden's speech live the next day.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Ganging up on China



Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal