There will be a sense of the familiar when the Paralympics begin on Tuesday. Senior Games officials, including the International Paralympic Committee president, Andrew Parsons, and a returning Thomas Bach will witness the start of the second instalment of the most controversial Games in recent history. In his role as honorary patron, Japan’s emperor, Naruhito, will again get to his feet to declare the event officially open at a near-empty national stadium in Tokyo.
But less than a month after the delayed 2020 Olympics ended in sporting success for the home country and repeated claims by government and organisers that they had passed off “safely and securely”, the Japan preparing to greet 4,400 Paralympians will be very different from the one that reluctantly welcomed the “Olympic family” in late July.
Then the narrative centred on the unknown: the number of Covid-19 cases among athletes and support staff; the reliability of the biosecure bubble that would confine most visitors to accommodations and venues for the entire 17 days of sport; the willingness of the Japanese public to set aside their opposition and embrace the athletes; and, crucially, the potential for the Olympics to leave rising cases, stretched medical services and more weeks of emergency restrictions in their wake.
We know now that hundreds of Covid-19 cases directly related to the Games did occur, although they appear to have been confined to the Olympic bubble. Demonstrators in the heavily policed streets outside the main stadium and other venues rubbed shoulders with residents who simply wanted to be present at events they had helped pay for but were banned from watching. Visitors recounted acts of kindness they had been shown by local people.
But in the days since an instantly forgettable closing ceremony, politicians and organisers have discussed the Games’ legacy in starkly contrasting terms. The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, insists there is no evidence the event contributed to a surge in daily cases in Tokyo and other parts of Japan. But experts, including his own chief medical adviser, believe the Games – in which Japan won a record number of medals – undermined official messaging on virus rules and encouraged people to lower their guard.
Whatever role the Olympics may have played, the pandemic has worsened dramatically since they ended on 8 August. Tokyo has reported a record daily caseload – 5,773 last Friday – as have Osaka and other prefectures. Nationwide, new daily cases averaged 20,307 a day this week, up from 14,729 last week, according to the health ministry.
More than 80% of critical care beds in the capital are occupied and serious cases are at record highs. In response, the government has extended and expanded a virus state of emergency until after the Paralympics, and said only coronavirus patients in serious condition should be admitted to hospital, with those exhibiting only “mild” symptoms told to recuperate at home.
Four days before the Paralympic opening ceremony, the pre-Olympic focus on worst-case scenarios has given way to the reality that Japan’s pandemic has reached crisis levels. How else to describe the death this week of a newborn baby whose coronavirus-positive mother was forced to give birth at home after failing to find a hospital that would admit her?
The same Japanese leaders and organisers who could be relied on to administer regular doses of optimism during the Olympics now seem to accept that the Paralympics will take place against a far more alarming backdrop.
“The delta variant raging across the world is causing unprecedented cases in our country,” Suga said. “Serious cases are increasing rapidly and severely burdening the medical system, particularly in the capital region.”
After the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on Friday that a hospital in the capital had rejected a request by organisers to accept emergency cases from the Paralympics so it could prioritise local coronavirus patients, Hidemasa Nakamura, the Tokyo 2020 Games delivery officer, said: “Looking at the medical situation, we cannot help but say we will hold the Paralympics in the middle of a very difficult situation.
“What do we do if we have a case of someone becoming seriously ill, given the tight situation on hospital beds?” Neither the organisers nor the government appear to have an answer, insisting only that the virus protocols outlined in the playbooks they claim worked flawlessly during the Olympics will be similarly effective until the Paralympics end on 5 September.
Spectators will again be banned from all but a handful of events, although an exception will be made for thousands of school pupils as part of a government educational initiative, despite evidence that children are spreading the virus in their homes at an unprecedented rate.
Athletes and other visitors will be subjected to restrictions on their daily movements, their continued involvement subject to an ambitious testing programme that has been denied to the Japanese public throughout the pandemic.
The effectiveness of the playbooks is already coming under scrutiny. On Saturday, 15 new Covid-19 infections were confirmed among Paralympic participants – bringing the total to more than 100 – days after the first case was identified in the athletes’ village, a non-competitor who is not resident in Japan.
Preparations for the Paralympics are now a study in the disconnect between medical experts and politicians over the threat this new, and worrying, wave of infections poses to the Japanese people. While the former sound the alarm, the latter are poised to roll the public health dice for the second time in the space of a month.
Like their IOC counterparts, senior IPC officials have sought to justify the Games by citing their higher purpose. Like a latter-day St Francis of Assisi, Bach, the IOC president, believed they would bring “hope” to a world battered by the pandemic and demonstrate the resilience of the host community.
In the same week that the Japanese Grand Prix, due to be held in October, was called off for the second year in a row, Parsons ruled out an 11th-hour cancellation, describing the Tokyo Paralympics as the “most important” in their history as they will give voice to the estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide living with a disability.
“We have seen other movements like LBGTQ, Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, and we need a similar movement for persons with a disability,” Parsons said after arriving in Tokyo.
No one could possibly find fault with that, but pre-Paralympic Japan is an angrier, more fearful place than it was a month ago. Instead, the powerful statement on diversity and courage implicit in every Paralympic performance risks being lost in a host nation where the Olympic feelgood factor has all but evaporated.