Olympic rings are seen at sunset in Tokyo, Japan on July 21, 2021.
Yuichi Yamazaki | Getty Images
On the eve of the Tokyo Games, organizers fired the director of the opening ceremony for his comments on the Holocaust, while media reported that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a memorable supporter of the Tokyo Games, would skip the showcase event.
The news, the latest in a series of embarrassments for Tokyo organizers that has sparked outrage both domestically and internationally, comes just days after an acquaintance Musician had to resign as a composer for the ceremony after old reports of his bullying and abusive behavior surfaced.
Abe, who disguised himself as the title plumber from the video game Super Mario at the Rio Games to represent Japan, played an outsized role in drawing the Olympics to Tokyo.
In a speech at a banquet hall full of members of the International Olympic Committee in 2013 that the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster was “under control” and that his nation was described as “passionate, proud and a firm believer” in the Olympic Games.
Back then, Abe and his supporters hoped the Olympics would run parallel to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, which would herald the revival of the nation after decades of economic stagnation and also mark its recovery from a devastating nuclear and natural disaster in 2011.
Instead, the games, postponed for a year due to the global pandemic, have faced a number of setbacks, including the departure of Yoshiro Mori, the former head of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, who resigned after making sexist statements. This was soon followed by the resignation of the Tokyo Olympics creative director Hiroshi Sasaki after making derogatory comments about a popular Japanese entertainer.
The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee said Kentaro Kobayashi, who is listed as the show director for the Games’ opening event, was fired after a joke he made in 1998 as part of his comedy show about the Holocaust re-appeared in the domestic media showed up.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, had previously published a statement condemning Kobayashi’s past behavior.
“Any association of that person with the Tokyo Olympics would offend the memory of six million Jews and cruelly mock the Paralympics,” said Abraham Cooper, rabbi and deputy dean and director of global social action for the center.
The Opening ceremony on FridayUsually serving as the host country’s major showcase, it will be a hushed proposition as Japanese media reports that fewer than 950 people – including only about 15 world leaders – will attend.
First Lady Jill Biden is expected to land in Tokyo for the opening ceremony of the Games on Thursday afternoon, raising expectations that she could also use her presence to discuss vaccines with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Biden has toured the United States urging more people in the country to get vaccinated.
Only a third of Japanese people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, fueling public concern that the Olympics could turn into a super-spread event. Dozens of participants have already tested positive for Covid-19, forcing athletes and teammates to withdraw into isolation.
NHK said Abe decided not to attend the ceremony after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions on Tokyo to minimize health risks for residents and visitors. Abe’s office was not immediately accessible on Thursday, a public holiday in Japan.
Covid-19 infections have skyrocketed in the capital and are expected to continue to rise, which will put a strain on healthcare providers.
In a recent poll in Asahi newspaper, 68% of respondents expressed doubts about the Olympic organizers’ ability to control coronavirus infections, with 55% saying they oppose hosting the Games.
The Olympic competition has already started. The Japanese women’s softball team got the hosts off to a winning start on Wednesday while the US senior women’s soccer team was upset with Sweden.
The second day of softball began under a cloudy sky in Fukushima early Thursday when the United States beat Canada 2-0 overall. Japan later meets Mexico.
Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics holds the U.S. broadcast rights to all Summer and Winter Games through 2032.