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Trends and Insight

The Olympics, Tokyo and Covid-19: Will the Games Go Ahead This Year?

With just weeks to go until the start of the torch relay for the Olympics in Tokyo, LBB’s Natasha Patel speaks to creatives in the country to hear their predictions for the Games

The Olympics, Tokyo and Covid-19: Will the Games Go Ahead This Year?

In the lead up to 2020, the focus was on the stellar sporting events that were peppered through what was meant to be an exciting year; the UEFA European Football Championship, World Athletics Indoor Championship, Wimbledon, The Olympics… the list was huge. And so, while many events have been postponed or rearranged thus far, the focus in recent months has been on Japan and the sheer uncertainty surrounding the Olympic games.

“I feel the majority of people have lost interest and the enthusiasm for hosting the games here due to concerns caused by Covid-19. Our main priority now is containing the pandemic,” says Alt.vfx’s Mai Fukuda who is based in Tokyo. It seems that recent news reports sing the same tune as Mai’s words, with the focus being on the pandemic first and the Olympics second. However, the creative world has been planning for the event for a long time, with campaigns signed and sealed months in advance – though they are yet to be delivered.

Just weeks ago, the International Olympic Committee’s head Thomas Bach was quoted saying they are not speculating if the games are taking place, but are “working on how they will take place”. However MullenLowe Group Japan’s CEO James Hollow believes that while the country’s “relatively risk-conscious population” can see a light at the end of the tunnel it is still a long way off.  “As recently reported in the newspapers, 80% of Japanese feel the Games should not go ahead this year, and that number rings true with my friends and family. I have heard the joke ‘it will become an Olympics for the different Covid strains from around the world to fight it out in Tokyo!’ The ruling Liberal Democrat Party is already under pressure after its own members were revealed to be ignoring their own lock down advice, and their ‘Olympics will go ahead’ line is adding to the perception that they are tone deaf and out of touch. This position feels increasingly untenable,” he explains.

MullenLowe Group Japan hasn’t worked with any Olympic sponsored brands directly, but James recalls the uncertainty having a knock-on effect on the agency, which led to the cancellation of campaigns. James observes: “I have noted sponsor brands continuing to use their Olympic sponsor logos on the end of TVCs or other advertisements. Perhaps they are scoring some sympathy points with consumers?” 

While some may look to the Super Bowl as inspiration for the Olympic Games due to the seamless way organisers were able to pull off a game with a half-time show, plenty of campaigns and a live – but reduced – audience, M&C Saatchi Tokyo’s chief strategy officer Nobu Yamamoto disagrees that this is the benchmark for the future of live sports with international teams. “Super Bowl was great enough content to be broadcast worldwide just by limiting the audience, but it was only possible because it was centred around players living in the United States and viewers nationwide.  In the case of the Olympics, overseas athletes and spectators coming from the world will rather play a central role of whole content, and it will be extremely difficult to manage overseas spectators during this continued Covid-19 circumstance.

“But what I’d say is all the people around the globe watching the Games would be touched emotionally as we all would be witnessing this sort of first ever Olympic games and athletes’ passion and energy under these difficulties. So the Games should be at least held to fulfil all the athletes’ continuous efforts. This would be the hope for the future.”

A second state of emergency was declared in Japan in January of this year due to reports that daily infections were seven times that of the first wave. This meant that the country’s notoriously long working hours and hard grind was threatened. James has seen first-hand the effect this has had on the creative industry: “As with any period of disruption there are positives. My sense is that Covid has been an accelerator of underlying trends that would otherwise have taken a long time, and none more so than in Japan, where WFH has done more to shift attitudes to corporate working environment, work life balance, mental health and wellbeing that decades of dithering policy failed to catalyse. It has even reversed the population shift from rural to urban centres.”

This isn’t where the changes have stopped and he observes the pivot on the digital industry too: “Covid highlighted how embarrassingly backward some of Japan's "if it ain't broke..." reliance on fax machines and company seals were shown to be.” 

The last time Tokyo held the Olympics was 1964, so for many creatives the games this year are a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and with a shift in technology and communication the impetus to create outstanding campaigns is definitely there. Mai recalls conversations she had with clients when the games were postponed, “There were mixed feelings. Some were relieved that the Olympics were postponed since they were facing some really tight timelines to execution due to the strict lockdown starting in March 2020 which caused major delays. Some, a huge disappointment. It is an once in lifetime opportunity to participate in locally hosted Olympic games related projects.”

The country has rallied its resilience and touched upon coming together to find a way out of the pandemic. Nobu recalls the Japanese phrase “Shouganai'' which means “it can’t be helped”. When the country was told that the Olympics were postponed the Japanese all embodied this. “The atmosphere was filled with Shouganai: it can't be helped, but at the same time, I was relieved that there was no concern necessary about what would happen if the event was held in such a difficult situation.”

The creative trio’s parting thoughts about the sporting event are all full of hope, not only for the Games but for the country and its residents. Mai so succinctly sums up the thoughts of so many at this turbulent time. “I strongly hope that, within the few months ahead, the Olympic committee and Tokyo will be able to roll out an execution plan that will fill the deep gap of uncertainty between them and the Japanese people and also the foreign teams and audience planning to visit.”

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