Japan is facing a fourth COVID wave and sluggish vaccine rollout. Will it be ready for the Olympics?


KYDPL KYODO/AP

Craig Mark, Kyoritsu Women’s UniversityAs a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic worsens in Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces a formidable challenge to successfully host the increasingly beleaguered Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, with less than 100 days left to go.

More contagious variants of COVID-19 are spreading from Japan’s second-largest city Osaka. Cases are already rising again in Tokyo, requiring a so-called “quasi state of emergency” to be reimposed in Japan’s major cities.

Anxieties are also rising over the country’s sluggish vaccine rollout, which is far behind many other countries, including Singapore, South Korea and Indonesia. Opinion polls show up to 70% of Japanese feel the vaccine rollout has been too slow.

As the head of one nursing care centre put it,

the government doesn’t seem to understand the urgency of the matter.

A delayed start to Japan’s vaccine rollout

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the rollout, has said 100 million doses should be stockpiled by June to cover the country’s elderly population (36 million people), health care workers and those with pre-existing conditions. This means, however, less than half the population is likely to be vaccinated when the Olympics start on July 23.

The main cause of the slow rollout stems from the initial decision by the government to go through a delayed approval process for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Japan only began vaccinating those over 65 years old this week.
Kyodo News/AP

Even though Phase 3 trials were concluded last November and the vaccine was approved by the World Health Organisation on December 31, the Japanese Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA) took another six weeks to conclude its own trials before granting approval. The rollout has been further impeded by strains on Pfizer’s production capacity and export controls imposed by the European Union.

At least four Japanese pharmaceutical companies have been conducting their own vaccine trials, but these have been stymied by a lack of investment and the slow pace of bureaucratic approval by the PMDA.




Read more:
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Japan also has orders for 120 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 50 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine, with hopes they will be approved for distribution and domestic production by May. Local trials have also begun for the Novavax vaccine, with hopes of being able to produce it domestically by the end of 2021.

Though achingly slow to be delivered, this means Japan has secured the rights for 564 million doses — more than enough for its population of 120 million people.

Osaka’s torch relay was held in a park without any crowds due to COVID concerns.
Hiro Komae/AP

A history of vaccine scares

But vaccine supply isn’t the only issue the country is facing. There are also concerns over the relatively high rate of vaccine reluctance among the Japanese public. Less than 25% strongly agree vaccines are effective, important and safe, according to a survey by The Lancet.

This is the legacy of vaccine safety scares in past decades. A small number of infants died from whooping cough vaccinations in the 1970s, followed by some adverse reactions to a combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine in the 1980s.




Read more:
For now, the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead. But at what cost?


Unfounded safety fears even led to the government withdrawing a national vaccination program for the human papillomavirus (HPV) in 2013, with fewer than 1% of Japanese girls now vaccinated for HPV.

Two recent surveys, however, show more than 60% of Japanese people are willing to get a COVID vaccine. The groups with more hesitancy included women and younger generations, with just over half indicating they wanted to get vaccinated.

Political pressure on Suga

For over a year, Japan’s pandemic strategy has largely relied on requests for businesses and the public to take voluntary precautions, such as closing bars and restaurants by 8pm, rather than enforce strict lockdowns. The government’s goal was to minimise the impact on the economy.

The Suga government and that of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, however, have been under constant criticism for what many perceive as a reactive approach to the crisis. There have been a number of missteps along the way, too.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has seen his popularity drop significantly since the start of his term last year.
Kaname Yoneyama/AP

This has worsened the approval ratings for the governing conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has to face a national election for the lower house of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) by October. Numerous corruption scandals implicating LDP Diet members, senior bureaucrats and even Suga himself have also undermined public support for the government, which could ultimately threaten Suga’s leadership.

Relations have also worsened between Suga and leaders of Japan’s prefectural governments, especially the governors of Osaka and Tokyo. They have been insisting a “quasi state of emergency” be reimposed for at least a month, following the premature lifting of the previous state of emergency on March 21.

Osaka’s governor has also called off the Olympic torch relay through the streets of his city.

Playbook for a COVID-safe Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics, themselves, however, are still proceeding as planned. The Suga and Tokyo governments and the International Olympic Committee believe there is simply too much at stake in terms of corporate sponsorships, broadcasting rights and political prestige — despite the vast majority of Japanese people believing the games should be cancelled or postponed.

Suga is even expected to invite US President Joe Biden to the Olympics during his official visit to the US this week.




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Why are Japan’s leaders clinging to their Olympic hopes? Their political fortunes depend on it


Foreign spectators have now been barred from attending, but organisers are still hopeful to have a domestic audience for the games, particularly since
socially-distanced sporting events have resumed in Japan, such as baseball, soccer and sumo wrestling.

However, there is so far no requirement that local spectators be vaccinated. And the IOC is only encouraging — not requiring — that athletes be vaccinated, according to IOC Vice President John Coates.

All athletes, coaches and support staff, as well as the foreign media, will instead have to show negative COVID-19 test results before entering Japan. They will also be required to follow a COVID-safe “Playbook”, which will strictly control their activities during the games and require testing every four days.

How the government handles the games may just determine its fate in the October elections.

Scandals and negative publicity have swirled around the event for months, putting enormous pressure on the government and organisers.

Last week, a report that priority vaccinations were being considered for the Japanese Olympic team ahead of the public sparked a social media backlash and prompted a denial by the government.

With less than 100 days to go until the opening ceremonies, the Suga government needs to take a stronger approach towards the pandemic and dramatically speed up its vaccine rollout. The success of the games — and the survival of Suga’s government — depend on it.The Conversation

Craig Mark, Professor, Faculty of International Studies, Kyoritsu Women’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How COVID caused chaos for cricket – and may force a rethink of all sport broadcasting deals


Jack Anderson, University of Melbourne

Cricket Australia faces a summer of discontent.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed financial and governance tensions and mistrust involving its players’ and state associations. However, those issues are a distant second to the current dissatisfaction and distrust that one of the sport’s broadcasting partners has with the quality and scheduling of the upcoming domestic playing season.

Channel Seven’s A$450 million concern with the restricted number of Australian international cricketers who might appear in this year’s BBL tournament now threatens to destabilise the sport’s principal source of revenue – the combined Foxtel and Seven six-year broadcasting deal signed in 2018 and worth A$1.18 billion over its six-year term.

COVID causes chaos

In March, it had all looked so different. On International Women’s Day 2020, the MCG hosted the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Final. Played in front of 86,000 people, Australia’s victory over India was a suitable end to a highly successful tournament. Within a week sport in Melbourne – including the first Formula 1 race of the year – and indeed globally had to shut down due to the pandemic.

Of all the major sports in Australia, cricket seemed the best equipped to survive the coronavirus lockdown. By then, 90% of the season had been completed. The men’s T20 World Cup tournament, to be hosted by Australia, was not scheduled until October, a month that marked the second anniversary of the appointment of the then CEO of Cricket Australia (CA), Kevin Roberts.

And yet the following month 80% of staff at Cricket Australia were stood down. The CEO was indicating that by August cricket would, to the amazement of many within the sport, have severe cashflow problems.




Read more:
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By June it was clear the men’s T20 World Cup would have to be postponed and Roberts was gone. He was replaced on an interim basis by Nick Hockley, then the CEO of the T20 World Cup local organising committee who had overseen the successful women’s T20 World Cup earlier in the year.

The previous Cricket Australia CEO, James Sutherland, had been in the job for 17 years. In contrast, 2020 was a precarious year to be a CEO in Australian sport – the CEOs of both Rugby Australia (RA) and the National Rugby League (NRL) also departed their jobs in April.

A scrum during an NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and Manly Sea Eagles
2020 has been a precarious year for many sporting codes, including NRL.
Dan Peled/AAP

Reflecting on the year’s instability, Sutherland commented empathetically that when you’re a sports administrator, you can deal with anything but uncertainty.

And for all Australian sports, 2020 has brought nothing but uncertainty to their finances, competition scheduling and administration.

Too much riding on broadcast deals

However, one point that has been constant in the operation of elite professional sport in Australia and elsewhere is how dependent their revenues are on TV broadcasting deals. The AFL’s revenue in 2019 was just shy of A$800 million, half of which related to broadcasting and media. Broadcasting accounted for 61% of the NRL’s total revenue last year.

The lengths to which the AFL and the NRL have gone to ensure their seasons go ahead – from biosecurity hubs and lobbying state and federal governments for border exemptions, to pay cuts for players and staff – must be seen in the context of their dependency on TV money.

In April, the equation for the AFL and NRL, as it was for Rugby Australia and the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) whose schedules were also affected, was simple: in the absence of games, there would be no obligation on broadcasters to honour their TV rights deals. This meant up to two-thirds of the sport’s revenue would disappear overnight.

In terms of contract law, broadcasters hinted at provisions in the agreements with sports such as force majeure clauses (unforeseeable circumstances), acts of God and other principles of contract law, such as the doctrine of frustration.

Broadcasters argued these would allow them to walk away from existing deals given that, for reasons outside both parties’ control, the playing season could not go ahead as scheduled, if at all.

Even as sports bodies desperately gave them assurances a season would go ahead, broadcasters remained adamant that the product they had originally paid for was now of such a different variety that the original broadcasting deal would have to be stood down and terms and conditions renegotiated.

Clearly, it was in the interest of the above sports bodies to enter into such negotiations. They did so with alacrity and some success. It must also be noted that an absence of live TV would likely have had an impact on what has fast become the second-most-important source of review for Australian sport – gambling.

For the broadcasters, as the playing seasons in the AFL, NRL and other codes were about to begin, they were acutely aware that without sport a significant advertising hole would be left in their schedules for the next six months. Moreover, given the pandemic had halted production of other advertising-rich programs such as reality TV, and the postponement of key international events such as the Olympics would exacerbate the scarcity of live sport on the schedules, it was also in the interest of broadcasters not to walk away from such deals.

The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics added further pain for broadcasters.
Eugene Hoshiko/AP/AAP

Lessons from a difficult year

The lessons from all of this are that, despite its protestations, it seems inevitable Cricket Australia will also have to renegotiate its broadcasting deal with Seven. The reality for modern sports organisations is that, while they rightly lament the absence of spectators, a dearth of subscribers does much greater commercial damage.

Cricket Australia faces a slightly trickier situation than the AFL, NRL and others faced earlier in the year. A key concern for the domestic broadcasters is that CA has been frustratingly slow in confirming its summer schedule.

Moreover, in renegotiating with other sports, there was never an issue that the best players available domestically in those sports would not play. Given the international demands and scheduling in cricket – notably Test matches against India and Afghanistan – it seems CA cannot guarantee the availability of the quality of player in competitions such as the BBL that the broadcasters feel their money deserves.

While matters now seem tense between CA and its broadcasting partners, the current standoff is probably all just part of the preening process. Already, CA has responded by indicating it will be more aggressive in its recruitment of marquee international players for the BBL. It has also raised the salary cap for those on BBL rosters. A “relaunched” BBL in its tenth year and over the summer holiday period would be an attractive proposition.

A relaunched Big Bash League (BBL) this coming summer could be an attractive proposition.
Scott Barbour/AAP

As the interim chief of CA, who is in an unenviable position, contemplates the inevitable phone call with the broadcaster, it might be advisable for him first to call the CEOs of the other sports organisation that have been recently through this process. The sport’s former, long-time boss Sutherland, recently installed as the CEO of Golf Australia, would also be worth talking to. Their experience could be invaluable for cricket in the weeks ahead.




Read more:
Why the fall-out from postponing the Olympics may not be as bad as we think


Finally, an interesting subtext to all of this is the emerging view that sports rights are overvalued and the future of such deals lies elsewhere in streaming services and on other digital, even in-house platforms.

But that is a matter for the future. For now, cricket powerbrokers should heed the advice of one of sport’s most colourful dealmakers, the boxing promoter Don King, who once said that, in sports contracts, you never get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.The Conversation

Jack Anderson, Professor of Sports Law, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The NRL should reconsider its comeback: it’s too soon



Dave Hunt/AAP

Keith Rathbone, Macquarie University

Last week, the NRL announced league play would resume in late May, following the introduction of strict biosecurity rules.

But even with new restrictions in place, the league should not resume until it can guarantee the safety of their players and employees.

The league also needs to ask serious questions about the social role of New South Wales’ biggest sport. Rugby’s return can signal a return to normalcy, but is the NRL sending the right message at the right time?




Read more:
Stadiums are emptying out globally. So why have Australian sports been so slow to act?


Setting a bad example

Many clubs are anxious about the short timeframe for restating play. They need enough time to resume operations, rehire personnel, stake out lodging and restart training. They also need time to put in place the proper health precautions.

Although the league claims its rules will be more “stringent than government restrictions”, it is unclear whether the biosecurity measures will be approved at the state or federal level. The league released a 47-page memorandum to clubs on Sunday evening, including additional measures such as:

  • increased player testing

  • playing in empty stadiums

  • a restricted schedule that limits travel

  • a mandatory COVID-19 training module

  • the social isolation of players inside their homes, except for essential business and travel

  • tough sanctions for rule violations.

The premiers of Victoria and Queensland have already voiced concerns about the NRL’s plans. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the federal government have no official position on the move, delegating responsibility for oversight of the NRL’s plans to the states, critics say the resumption of play sets a bad example at a time when Australia is on the cusp of eliminating domestic coronavirus transmissions.

Global health expert Adam Kamradt-Scott has said the restart date was “arbitrary” and warned

“if [the NRL] jump the gun and restart things too early we will confront the situation where we will see cases rise again and us having to go back into stronger restrictions.

NRL teams restarted training earlier this month in anticipation of the season recommencing.
Scott Barbour/AAP

Do they have a choice?

The NRL’s weakened financial position has played an important role in its decision to resume play. By mid-April, the league only had about $70 million in cash and was losing $13 million per unplayed round.

The league asked the government for a bailout and was denied. Despite having its largest-ever television contracts, the league had not invested in any collateral, such as a stadium or even the land under its own headquarters, and over the past few years, had spent down its rainy-day fund.

Having also not invested in pandemic insurance, it was looking at a certain financial catastrophe.




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A world without sports


The league’s financial woes worsened after a fortnight of sparring with its biggest television partner, Nine, which led pundits to wonder whether the NRL might still have a television home when its current contract ends in 2022.

Both Nine and Foxtel threatened to withhold quarterly payments to the league and until Friday, were cautious about a restart that might fail and leave them searching for content to replace matches.

At the end of the week, the NRL seemed to reach an agreement with Nine. Their rapprochement comes with additional confidence of a forthcoming three-year extension of their television deal, but likely worth less than the last agreement.

By contrast, the NRL’s chief rival, the AFL, had put itself in a position to weather the virus for longer – a fact many rugby fans likely found galling. The AFL also cancelled play and stood down up to 80% of its staff, but it received loans from ANZ and NAB, thanks to the AFL’s ownership of the Docklands Stadium.

The recent departure of NRL Chief Executive Todd Greenberg and the resignation of Rugby Australia Chief Executive Raelene Castle further illustrate how difficult a time it can be for rugby administrators.

ARL chairman Peter V’landys said ‘there’s no reason not to resume’ the season.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Can the NRL police itself?

Of course, there is danger with restarting too soon, as sporting clubs are particularly vulnerable to the spread of diseases.

Before the NBA season was shut down last month, a number of players tested positive for coronavirus, including four members of the Brooklyn Nets. Only one of the Nets was symptomatic, which raises the question: how long might the asymptomatic players continued to play had league officials not postponed the season?

Asymptomatic carriers could be the biggest problem for the NRL, too. A study in the British Medical Journal and a World Health Organisation report suggested that four-fifths of infected people may be asymptomatic.

As such, the NRL’s proposal to use apps to check temperatures and overall player health might miss those who are infected but not showing symptoms.

The NRL has also had significant issues with health technology in the past, such as when its “sideline injury surveillance” technology failed to properly assess head trauma to Matt Moylan after a shocking collision last year. Moylan played for another 10 minutes before being pulled off the field.




Read more:
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There is also growing scepticism about the NRL’s ability to police itself.

Peter V’landys, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, promises there will be sanctions for those who violate the biosecurity measures.

We’ve got no option, there must be a deterrent because one reckless act will bring down an entire competition and the livelihoods that come with that.

But has the league developed enough trust? It resisted calls for independent doctors to assess concussions for years and, since agreeing to the checks, has only done them inconsistently. It is not certain that league-affiliated doctors would be any more responsible in their approach to coronavirus.

The league is also relying heavily on buy-in from players, many of whom are known more for their recklessness than responsibility. Just this week, several players were forced to apologise after breaching social-distancing rules on a camping trip.

Nor is it clear that fans will support these changes. How will supporters respond, for instance, if a star player is sanctioned for an unessential trip out of his home?

Another logistical question: does the league plan to keep players and other employees separate from their families for the whole season? In other sports, similar models have proven difficult. Teams on the Tour de France have traditionally tried to keep riders separate from their families, with mixed success.

It has been a month without rugby and the NRL’s decision to resume play promises an end to every sports fan’s purgatory. Even so, the league should strongly reconsider. A longer delay, or even a cancelled season, is better than risking the lives of players, league employees and other Australians if the coronavirus were to spread further.The Conversation

Keith Rathbone, Lecturer, Modern European History and Sports History, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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