The Aim of my research as a PhD student over the last two and half years has been to examine how the Japanese and Tokyo governments, through sports diplomacy, will use the Olympic Games as a soft power tool. The phrase ‘the Olympic Games as a Weak excuse’ stems from the data collection and coding process of my research to examine the effectiveness of Japans soft power strategy in using the Olympic Games as a soft power tool. The organisation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has been an incubator of narratives, an Olympic Games like no other. This is because of the Emergence of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) that led to a global pandemic, resulting in the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Thus, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games became a sport mega-event where the narrative was about Covid-19 as a biological threat versus the Olympic Games as a soft power tool beneficial for Japan’s national and international image. At the same time, recovery continues to be the headline of the Games, and Japan had the idea of using the Games as a recovery Games; intended to help the country rebuild from its recent tragedies – the tsunami, earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The emergence of the Covid-19 became a priority that overshadowed the chosen Olympic narrative. Further, Covid-19 became a catalyst that revealed the societal and structural issues surrounding hosting a sport mega-event like the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games is a platform for high diplomatic relations, people-to-people relations, a showcase for the host countries’ cultures and ideals as well as a means to gain more acceptance from and generate attraction among foreign publics. However, the Olympic Games have become a ‘weak excuse;’ a go-to platform for countries seeking to use them for economic, social and infrastructural development. The emergence of a global pandemic justified this narrative.

The Olympic Games as a weak excuse can be examined through host city case studies and by examining the Olympics’ impact on the host cities or countries.  For example, in the bid to host the Olympic Games, it was estimated that Olympic cities spend an estimate of about $50 million to $100 million in fees for consulting and events related activities to hosting. In Japan’s case. Tokyo lost an estimated $150 million on its bid for the 2016 Olympics and an estimated $75 million on its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. These figures show that biding for the Olympic Games has become an expensive process.

The level of spending gives rise to the notion that countries – especially emerging powers – have bought into hosting the Olympic Games and, into the idea that mega sports events are an opportunity for host nations to display their pride to the world. In reality, however, we see the weak excuse where countries prioritise the Olympic Games in place of national issues. Winning the bid for the Olympic Games requires the building of infrastructure and, is usually accompanied by a huge influx of people for tourism purposes. However, the debt incurred as a result of hosting the Olympics, including maintainance of infrastructure and arenas, arguably belies arguments for the importance of the Games that are not a weak excuse. After the Olympics in Australia, for example, the Sydney stadium costs $30 million annually, and Beijing’s Birds Nest arena cost $10 million a year. Montreal (1976 Summer Games hosts) finished paying the debt incurred only in 2006.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is another example of a weak excuse. The health concerns arisng around the Zika Virus became an issue during the Games and the Brazillian debt crisis worstened significantly as a result of the decision to stage the event. In the case of Japan, the 1964 Olympic Games signified the recasting of Japan’s wartime image and a return to the international community. In addition, the 1964 Olympics was an opportunity for Japan to display economic progress and its status as a technological powerhouse. This can be classified as soft power through sports diplomacy because, at the time, Japan had an image to repair. Fast forward to the 2020 Olympic Games; it is unclear what type of legacy the Olympic Games will bring to Japan. This is because the organisation of the Games largely proceeded behind closed doors.

While the 2020 Olympic Games became a platform for Japan to salvage its soft power on a national and international level from widespread disapproval of its citizens and foreign publics. It will be challenging to determine what legacy the Games might produce in the future. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games may have just become another ‘weak excuse.’  Using the event as a soft power tool did not meet the expectations of the Games organisers. In terms of people-to-people relations and tourism for example, the Olympic Games did not (indeed, could not) meet the expectations of bringing sports fans and tourists to Tokyo. And, this in turn is very likely to have dented Japan’s financial calculation of the Game’s benefit. The impact of this will will be seen in the future. Secondly, in terms of global visibility and interaction to the forign public, the Games did not meet its expectations; these Olympic Games recorded a fall in TV audiences in comparision to the 2016 event. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games became the least-watched Olympics across Europe and America, with the smallest audience in the past 33 years. These examples show that – in terms of using the Tokyo 2020 Games as a soft power tool – Japan and Tokyo may have failed. Although, in ‘normal times’ without the pressures and constraints of global pandemic, Japan would very likely have been a perfect host.

It is notable, however, that from a sport diplomacy point of view, the hosting of the Games has been a success for Japan. This is precisely because the Japanese Olympic Committee negotiated to keep their Olympic dreams alive by hosting the Games in the middle of a global pandemic.


Solomon Ilevbare is a doctoral student at UWS, CCSE. @SolomonIlevbare