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Troubled Tokyo Olympics near finish line with one month to go

A general view shows the Olympic rings lit up at dusk, with the Rainbow bridge and the Tokyo Tower (back C) in the background, on the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo on May 10, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
A general view shows the Olympic rings lit up at dusk, with the Rainbow bridge and the Tokyo Tower (back C) in the background, on the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo on May 10, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
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TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympics have weathered a historic postponement, an unprecedented ban on overseas fans and persistent domestic opposition, but with one month to go, the finish line is finally in sight.اضافة اعلان

The journey to Tokyo 2020 has involved a long list of complications that sometimes threatened to make it the first modern Olympics cancelled in peacetime.

Now, just four weeks remain until the opening ceremony on July 23, and while the mood is far from jubilant, organizers might just have cause to celebrate.

The first Olympic teams are already in Japan, along with key officials and some overseas media. And polls suggest long-standing public opposition to the Games may be weakening as D-day approaches.

"We are in the full delivery phase," International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach said on Monday.

"Athletes are beginning to arrive in Tokyo, ready to make their Olympic dreams become a reality."

It has been an uphill battle since the unprecedented decision to postpone the Games in March 2020, as the scale of the pandemic started to emerge.

Back then, there was cause to hope the pandemic might be over before the opening ceremony came around.

But a global coronavirus surge and the rise of more infectious variants put paid to those dreams and fuelled rising opposition in Japan.

No cheering, high-fives
Officials pressed ahead, contending with delayed qualifiers and test events and launching a mammoth effort to draft virus rules they say will keep the event safe.

In March they announced the Games would be the first to bar overseas spectators, a decision that Tokyo 2020 chief and former Olympian Seiko Hashimoto called "unavoidable".

On Monday, organizers set a maximum of 10,000 domestic fans per venue, but warned events could move behind closed doors if infections surge.

Even with some spectators in the stands, there's no doubt this year's Games will be a pale imitation of Olympics past.

Cheering will be banned, and athletes can't hug or high-five.

They must wear masks except when eating, sleeping or competing, and can only move between the Olympic Village and their venues. They face warnings, fines or being kicked out of the Games for breaking the rules.

Hurdles ahead
The Tokyo Olympics faced setbacks as far back as 2015, when the main stadium's revamp was sent back to the drawing board because it was too expensive.

In 2019, the head of Japan's Olympic committee stepped down over a French investigation probing $2.3 million in payments made before and after Tokyo's nomination. He denied any wrongdoing.

As the Games finally approach, the IOC says more than 80 percent of those in the Village will be vaccinated, but competitors will still be tested daily.

In a taste of the challenges ahead, a coach from Uganda's Olympic team tested positive on arrival in Japan on Saturday, despite the delegation being vaccinated and testing negative before travel.

On Tuesday, the team's other eight members were put into quarantine until July 3, a local official told AFP.

The relentless preparations may have taken their toll on Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who will take the rest of the week off to recover from exhaustion, her office said Tuesday.

The Olympic delay and virus security have added at least 294 billion yen ($2.6 billion) to an already hefty budget of 1.64 trillion yen ($14.9 billion), which could make Tokyo among the most expensive Summer Games ever.

But despite the coronavirus and the hefty expense, there are signs public opposition is softening, with recent surveys finding 50 percent or more favor the Games going ahead over cancellation.

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who faces his first election just after the Games, will be hoping for a success that can boost his political career.

His government has faced pressure over its coronavirus response, though Japan has seen a smaller outbreak than many nations, with around 14,500 deaths despite avoiding harsh lockdowns.

The country vaccine rollout started slowly, though the pace is now increasing, with around seven percent of the population fully inoculated.Remember when everyone was panicking about inflation, warning ominously about 1970s-type stagflation? OK, many people are still saying such things, some because that’s what they always say, some because that’s what they say when there’s a US Democratic president, some because they’re extrapolating from the big price increases that took place in the first five months of this year.

But for those paying closer attention to the flow of new information, inflation panic is, you know, so last week.

Seriously, both recent data and recent statements from the US Federal Reserve have, well, deflated the case for a sustained outbreak of inflation. For that case has always depended on asserting that the Fed is either intellectually or morally deficient (or both). That is, to panic over inflation, you had to believe either that the Fed’s model of how inflation works is all wrong or that the Fed would lack the political courage to cool off the economy if it were to become dangerously overheated.

Both beliefs have now lost most of whatever credibility they may have had.

Let’s start with the theory of inflation.

Since the 1970s, and especially since a seminal 1975 paper by Robert Gordon, many economists have tried to distinguish between transitory fluctuations in the inflation rate driven by temporary factors and an underlying “core” inflation rate that is much more stable — but also hard to bring down if it gets uncomfortably high. The idea is that policy should largely ignore transitory inflation, which is easy come, easy go, and only worry if core inflation looks as if it’s getting too high (or too low).

Since 2004, the Fed has routinely published an estimate of core inflation that it derives by excluding changes in food and energy prices, which are notoriously volatile, and has used that measure to fend off demands that it tighten monetary policy in the face of inflation it considers temporary — notably in 2010-11, when prices of oil and other commodities were rising and US Republicans were accusing the Fed of risking “currency debasement.”

The Fed was, of course, right: Inflation soon subsided. And the distinction between transitory and underlying inflation — a distinction that, judging from my inbox, generates an extraordinary amount of hatred from some Wall Street types — has, in fact, been a huge practical success, helping the Fed to keep calm and carry on in the face of both inflation and deflation scares.

The Fed has been arguing that recent price rises are similarly transitory. True, they’re not coming from food and energy so much as from pandemic-related disruptions that caused surging prices of used cars, lumber and other nontraditional sources of inflation. But the Fed’s view has been that this episode, like the inflation blip of 2010-11, will soon be over.

And it’s now looking as if the Fed was right. Lumber prices have plunged in recent weeks. Prices of industrial metals such as copper are coming down. Prices of used cars are still very high, but their surge has stalled and they may have peaked. Core inflation wins again.

What about the alternative inflation story? It goes like this: The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan has pumped a huge amount of purchasing power into the economy, while affluent households, who built up large savings during the pandemic, are now ready to go on a spending spree. As a result, critics warn, there will be a classic case of too much money chasing too few goods, leading to a big rise not just in volatile prices but in underlying inflation.

To buy into this story, however, you have to claim not just that the coming boom will be truly huge — even bigger than most private forecasters expect — but also that the Fed, which is fully capable of reining in a runaway boom, will stand idly by while inflation gets out of hand.

Last week, however, statements from the Fed’s open-market committee — the group that sets monetary policy — made such claims less plausible.

Reading such statements is often an exercise in Kremlinology — the Fed didn’t announce any actual policy changes, so it’s all about trying to identify changes in tone that give clues about the future. But Fed watchers considered the new releases hawkish, signaling increased willingness to step on the brakes if the US economy really is exceeding its speed limit.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think tapping the brakes will actually be required. But by suggesting that it will act if necessary, the Fed has largely undercut whatever case there was for worrying about a return to the 1970s.

So what was all that about? Monetary doomsayers have been wrong again and again since the early 1980s, when Milton Friedman kept predicting an inflation resurgence that never arrived. Why the eagerness to party like it’s 1979?

To be fair, government support for the economy is much stronger now than it was during the Obama years, so it makes more sense to worry about inflation this time around. But the vehemence of the inflation rhetoric has been wildly disproportionate to the actual risks — and those risks now seem even smaller than they did a few weeks ago.

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