‘Recovery Olympics’ take a back seat amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Tokyo Olympics were meant to showcase Japan’s recovery efforts after the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. This opportunity appears to be evaporating in the intense summer heat and the growing number of COVID-19 cases.

Like other volunteers, Michiko Saito was thrilled to participate in the softball games that kicked off this week in her hometown of Fukushima, the prefecture that has seen the world’s worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl in 1986.

In a symbolic gesture, Fukushima Azuma Stadium was chosen to host the Games’ first-ever event, where defending softball champions Japan faced Australia on Wednesday, ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony in Tokyo.

But earlier this month, the prefecture governor announced that the competitions will be held behind closed doors, citing security concerns against viruses. The stadium hosts three softball games each Wednesday and Thursday, as well as the July 28 opening baseball game between Japan and the Dominican Republic. Spectators will all be banned.

“This is nothing like what I expected,” says Saito, executive director of Utsukushima Sports Rooters, a non-profit sports volunteer organization based in Fukushima.

While volunteers will continue to assist organizers in Games-related operations, members of “City Cast”, who are considered the face of the Olympics and are responsible for guiding traffic and visitors around the venues, do have nothing to do.

“I hoped that the Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve the image of Fukushima and to thank the international community for their support in showing how far we have come since the disaster,” said Saito. “But I’m afraid this message will not get delivered.”

A policeman patrols around Fukushima Azuma Stadium on Tuesday. | KYODO

The Olympics were initially billed as the “Olympic Games of Recovery” – an opportunity to shine on the world stage and demonstrate efforts to rebuild northeastern Japan after the 2011 disaster, which left more than 15,000 people. dead and thousands missing while crippling the reactors of Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But that goal appears to have fallen behind as organizers scramble to accommodate sporting extravagance amid the surge in coronavirus cases and the capital’s notoriously sweltering summer heat.

Instead, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to make the Olympics a “proof of human victory against the coronavirus,” while underlining in recent months his determination to hold a “safe and secure” Games. Tokyo reported 1,832 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, up from 1,149 on the same day a week ago. The event also appears to be one of the hottest and wettest in Olympic history, raising concerns for the safety of athletes.

Much remains to be done in the aftermath of the 2011 crisis. According to the Reconstruction Agency, around 40,000 people are still displaced. And while much of the disaster-related infrastructure work has been completed in tsunami-ravaged coastal towns, the resilience of affected communities will be tested after the government drastically slashed its post-earthquake relief budget. a spending spree of 31.3 trillion yen over 10 years. . For the five years from FY2021, a reconstruction budget of 1.6 trillion yen has been allocated, a fraction of the amount spent in the previous decade.

Meanwhile, the complicated dismantling work of Fukushima No.1 Power Plant continues, with operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco) aiming to scrapped the plant between 2041 and 2051. Critics have, however, been calling questioned the schedule, citing extremely high radiation levels, delayed probes and the lack of technology needed to extract around 900 tonnes of molten fuel debris.

And in April, the government authorized plans to release treated radioactive water from the damaged plant into the Pacific Ocean after a two-year preparatory period. While the government has said it will step up public relations initiatives to highlight water safety and pledged that Tepco will offer compensation if negative rumors about local agricultural and marine products circulate, concerns remain.

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1 in Fukushima in February |  KYODO
Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1 in Fukushima in February | KYODO

“I think the people of Fukushima had mixed feelings about the Olympics to begin with. We were both excited and somewhat skeptical about the event, ”said Riken Komatsu, a Fukushima-based activist and author of the award-winning book“ Shin Fukko-ron ”(“ New Theory of Reconstruction ”).

“But the point is, reconstruction work and decontamination efforts are still ongoing. Disposal of the plant is difficult and will probably take years, while there is the problem of the release of treated water into the sea, ”he says. “My friends in the construction industry are also complaining about recruiting talented engineers for the Tokyo Olympics, leaving Fukushima with less experienced workers.

“So the question is whether the ‘Recovery Olympics’ will live up to their nickname,” he said. “I doubt.”

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