The coming week could be make-or-break for a bipartisan plan to fix America’s languishing infrastructure. Michelle Quinn reports.
Produced by: Marcus Harton
The coming week could be make-or-break for a bipartisan plan to fix America’s languishing infrastructure. Michelle Quinn reports.
Produced by: Marcus Harton
Staging an Olympics during the worst pandemic in a century? There’s a widespread perception that it couldn’t happen in a better place than Japan.
A vibrant, open democracy with deep pockets, the host nation is known for its diligent execution of detail-laden, large-scale projects, its technological advances, its consensus-building and world-class infrastructure. All this, on paper, at least, gives the strong impression that Japan is one of the few places in the world that could even consider pulling off the high-stakes tightrope walk that the Tokyo Games represent.
Some in Japan aren’t buying it.
“No country should hold an Olympics during a pandemic to start with. And if you absolutely must, then a more authoritarian and high-tech China or Singapore would probably be able to control COVID better,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The bureaucratic, technological, logistical and political contortions required to execute this unprecedented feat — a massively complicated, deeply scrutinized spectacle during a time of global turmoil, death and suffering — have put an unwelcome spotlight on the country.
Most of all, it has highlighted some embarrassing things: that much of Japan doesn’t want the Games, that the nation’s vaccine rollout was late and is only now expanding, and that many suspect the Games are being forced on the country because the International Olympic Committee needs the billions in media revenue.
The worry here isn’t that Tokyo’s organizers can’t get to the finish line without a major disaster. That seems possible, and would allow organizers to claim victory, of a kind.
The fear is that once the athletes and officials leave town, the nation that unwillingly sacrificed much for the cause of global sporting unity might be left the poorer for it, and not just in the tens of billions of dollars it has spent on the Games.
The Japanese public may see an already bad coronavirus situation become even worse; Olympics visitors here have carried fast-spreading variants of the virus into a nation that is only approaching 25% fully vaccinated.
The Tokyo Olympics are, in one sense, a way for visitors to test for themselves some of the common perceptions about Japan that have contributed to this image of the country as the right place to play host. The results, early on in these Games, are somewhat of a mixed bag.
On the plus side, consider the airport arrivals for the thousands of Olympics participants. They showcased Japan’s ability to harness intensely organized workflow skills and bring them to bear on a specific task — in this case, protection against COVID-19 that might be brought in by a swarm of outsiders.
From the moment visitors stepped from their aircraft at Narita International Airport, they were corralled — gently, cheerfully, but in no uncertain terms firmly — into lines, then guided across the deserted airport like second-graders heading to recess. Barriers, some with friendly signs attached, ensured they got documents checked, forehead temperatures measured, hands sanitized and saliva extracted.
Symmetrical layouts of chairs, each meticulously numbered, greeted travelers awaiting their COVID-19 test results and Olympic credentials were validated while they waited. The next steps — immigration, customs — were equally efficient, managing to be both crisp and restrictive, but also completely amiable. You emerged from the airport a bit dizzy from all the guidance and herding, but with ego largely unbruised.
But there have also been conspicuous failures.
After the opening ceremony ended, for example, hundreds of people in the stadium were crammed into a corrallike pen, forced to wait for hours with only a flimsy barricade separating them from curious Japanese onlookers, while dozens of empty buses idled in a line stretching for blocks, barely moving.
Japan does have some obvious advantages over other democracies when it comes to hosting these Games, such as its economic might. As the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China, it was able to spend the billions needed to orchestrate these protean Games, with their mounting costs and changing demands.
Another advantage could be Japan’s well-deserved reputation for impeccable customer service. Few places in the world take as much pride in catering to visitors’ needs. It’s an open question, however, whether that real inclination toward hospitality will be tested by the extreme pressure.
A geopolitical imperative may be another big motivator. Japanese archrival China hosts next year’s Winter Games, and many nationalists here maintain that an Olympic failure is not an option amid the struggle with Beijing for influence in Asia. Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister, may also be hoping that a face-saving Games, which he can then declare successful, will help him retain power in fall elections.
And the potential holes in the argument that Japan is the perfect host nation for a pandemic Games?
Start, maybe, with leadership. It has never been clear who is in charge. Is it the city of Tokyo? The national government? The IOC? The Japanese Olympic Committee?
“This Olympics has been an all-Japan national project, but, as is often pointed out, nobody has a clear idea about who is the main organizer,” said Akio Yamaguchi, a crisis communications consultant at Tokyo-based AccessEast. “Uncertainty is the biggest risk.”
Japan has also faced a problem particular to democracies: a fierce, sometimes messy public debate about whether it was a good idea to hold the Games.
“After the postponement, we have never had a clear answer on how to host the Olympics. The focus was whether we can do it or not, instead of discussing why and how to do it,” said Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University.
“Japan is crucially bad at developing a ‘plan B.’ Japanese organizations are nearly incapable of drafting scenarios where something unexpected happens,” Ishizaka said. “There was very little planning that simulated the circumstances in 2021.”
Another possibly shaky foundation of outside confidence in Japan is its reputation as a technologically adept wonder of efficiency.
Arriving athletes and reporters “will probably realize that Japan is not as high-tech or as efficient as it has been often believed,” Nakano said. “More may then realize that it is the utter lack of accountability of the colluded political, business and media elites that ‘enabled’ Japan to hold the Olympics in spite of very negative public opinion — and quite possibly with considerable human sacrifice.”
The Tokyo Games are a Rorschach test of sorts, laying out for examination the many different ideas about Japan as Olympic host. For now, they raise more questions than they answer.
Scores of wildfires raging across forest and scrubland in the Western United States have belched so much smoke that it is helping an army of firefighters gain ground on the nation’s biggest blaze, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, by blocking sunlight, officials said Saturday.
Both the National Weather Service and officials with the Oregon Department of Forestry said smoke in the lower atmosphere coming from California wildfires has floated over the Bootleg Fire, which has scorched more than 401,000 acres in Oregon about 402 kilometers (250 miles) south of Portland.
“It’s called ‘smoke shading’ and it’s basically put a lid on the lower atmosphere for now, blocking sunlight and creating cooler, more stable surface conditions,” said Eric Schoening, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.
The phenomenon is unpredictable, and the area is still under red-flag warnings this weekend from the weather service, which said the Pacific Northwest may experience high temperatures and wind gusts that can fan the flames and spread hot sparks and embers.
More difficulty for aircraft
Schoening said the weather is a mixed bag in terms of helping firefighters.
Marcus Kauffman, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the drawback of the smoke shade is that it makes it harder to fly planes and helicopters that drop water and chemical fire suppressants, even “while it helps the teams on the ground.”
More than 2,000 firefighters and support crews had contained about 42% of the fire by Saturday, although the fire jumped containment lines the night before, he said.
“We lost 1,600 acres last night,” Kauffman said.
The Bootleg Fire is one of more than 80 large active wildfires in 13 states that have charred about 526,090 hectares (1.3 million acres) in recent weeks, an area larger than Delaware, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The smoke, even as it provides some help to Oregon firefighters, has recently been carried by the jet stream and other air currents as far as the Northeastern cities of New York and Boston, where some residents have felt the air contamination in their eyes, noses and lungs.
The world champion U.S. women’s water polo squad began its quest for a third straight Olympic gold medal Saturday by storming into the record books with a 25-4 humbling of hosts Japan at the Tatsumi Water Polo Center.
But the U.S. record for most goals scored in a single match at the Olympics stood just a few hours before being overhauled by reigning European champion Spain, which crushed South Africa 29-4 to lay down a marker of its own.
Teenager Elena Ruiz, making her Olympic debut at age 16, led Spain in scoring with five goals, while nine of her teammates also were on target.
Japan, which like South Africa is playing in its first Olympics, started brightly against the U.S. and even drew level at 3-3, but was outpowered and outclassed once its opponents settled into the match.
“We got off to a rocky start, especially defensively,” said U.S. captain Maggie Steffens, who scored five goals. “The Olympics gives you extra bit of energy and excitement and it was nice to see our team recover and take a deep breath.”
Stephania Haralabidis also scored five, while Madeline Musselman and Aria Fischer chipped in with four apiece for the Americans, who have dominated women’s water polo in the past few years.
Five other U.S. players got on the scoresheet as the match quickly descended into a drubbing.
“We’re human, and we get nervous just like everyone else,” U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said in response to a question on his team’s slow start.
“It’s the first game of the Olympics and those jitters aren’t going to go away for us or for any other team. Sometimes it just gets us, but once we settled down, we were much better.”
US tough in goal
Miku Koide scored twice for Japan, including her country’s first women’s water polo goal at the Olympics, with Yumi Arima and Eruna Ura also on target for the hosts.
But U.S. goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson was in scintillating form, saving 15 of the 19 shots she faced and shutting out the Japanese offense completely in the second and fourth quarters as her team made a dream start in Group B.
Australia also started with a win, beating Canada 8-5 in Group A, with driver Bronte Halligan the pick of the Aussie players with three goals in her Olympic debut.
The Russian Olympic Committee team, who won bronze in Rio five years ago, was locked in a fiercely physical battle with China in the day’s final match, but held on to win 18-17, with captain Ekaterina Prokofyeva helping her team snatch victory with two late goals.
On this edition of Encounter, Ambassador Michelle Gavin, senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Ambassador to Botswana, and Frans Cronje, CEO of the Johannesburg-based Institute of Race Relations, analyze with host Carol Castiel the political, economic and social situation in South Africa following the arrest and detention of former South African president Jacob Zuma given the protests, looting and violence which this incident triggered. How did the celebrated multiracial democracy led by Nelson Mandela reach this critical juncture point, and what does the future hold for South Africa?
Kohei Uchimura, Japan’s top male gymnast, looking to end his long career in glory, instead slipped and fell Saturday during his high bar qualifying event. Known for winning all-around gymnastic championships for years, the 32-year-old athlete was looking to compete only in the high bar this year, but his fall leaves him out of the competition.
Tropical Storm Nepartak is headed for Japan, bringing the threat of heavy rains and strong winds. Olympic officials are rescheduling some rowing events to take place earlier than originally planned.
Richard “The Locomotive” Carapaz is taking home the gold for cycling, Ecuador’s first cycling medal.
The International Judo Federation has suspended Algerian athlete Fethi Nourine and his coach Amar Benikhlef after they both withdrew from the games to avoid a match against an Israeli athlete and in support of the “Palestinian cause.”
Nourine told Algerian television, “We worked a lot to reach the Olympics, but the Palestinian cause is bigger than all this.”
The federation has confirmed the men’s withdrawals from the games and said in a statement, “The immediate response of the IJF Executive Committee was to form an investigative commission, which confirmed all the facts, leading to a temporary suspension of the athlete and the coach and assigning the case to the Disciplinary Commission of the IJF for further investigation, judgment and final sanctioning beyond the Olympic Games.”
The youngest Olympic athlete is out of the competition in Tokyo after losing her first match Saturday. Twelve-year-old table tennis athlete Hend Zaza of Syria lost to 39-year-old Liu Jia of Austria.
Zaza told People magazine, “The main lesson was the loss of this match, especially in the first match so next time I will be working hard to pass the first, second, third round,” the youngster said. “Because I want to be in this competition longer, not only for the first round.”
Issues in the News moderator Kim Lewis talks with VOA senior diplomatic correspondent, Cindy Saine, and senior reporter for Marketplace, Nancy Marshall-Genzer, about growing congressional challenges on infrastructure, police reform, COVID-19 and the economy facing the Biden administration, the ramifications of a widespread cyber-attack on Microsoft allegedly conducted by China, controversial Israeli phone surveillance software allegedly misused amid a global hacking scandal, the Tokyo Olympics and global concern over the spreading of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Africa became the region hardest hit by terrorism in the first half of 2021 as the Islamic State and al-Qaida extremist groups and their affiliates spread their influence, boasting gains in supporters and territory and inflicting the greatest casualties, U.N. experts said in a new report.
The panel of experts said in a report to the U.N. Security Council circulated Friday that this is “especially true” in parts of West and East Africa where affiliates of both groups can also boast growing capabilities in fundraising and weapons, including the use of drones.
Several of the most successful affiliates of the Islamic State are in its central and west Africa province, and several of al-Qaida’s are in Somalia and the Sahel region, they said.
The experts said it’s “concerning” that these terrorist affiliates are spreading their influence and activities including across borders from Mali into Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger and Senegal as well as incursions from Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad and Niger in West Africa. In the east, the affiliates’ activities have spread from Somalia into Kenya and from Mozambique into Tanzania, they said.
One of “the most troubling events” of early 2021 was the local Islamic State affiliate’s storming and brief holding of Mozambique’s strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province near the border with Tanzania “before withdrawing with spoils, positioning it for future raids in the area,” the panel said.
Overall, the experts said, COVID-19 continued to affect terrorist activity and both the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, and al-Qaida “continued to gloat over the harm done by the coronavirus disease pandemic to their enemies, but were unable to develop a more persuasive narrative.”
“While ISIL contemplated weaponizing the virus, member states detected no concrete plans to implement the idea,” the panel said.
In Europe and other non-conflict zones, lockdowns and border closures brought on by COVID-19 slowed the movement and gathering of people “while increasing the risk of online radicalization,” it said.
The experts warned that attacks “may have been planned in various locations” during the pandemic “that will be executed when restrictions ease.”
The panel said that in Iraq and Syria, “the core conflict zone for ISIL,” the extremist group’s activities have evolved into “an entrenched insurgency, exploiting weaknesses in local security to find safe havens, and targeting forces engaged in counter-ISIL operations.”
Despite heavy counter-terrorism pressures from Iraqi forces, the experts said Islamic State attacks in Baghdad in January and April “underscored the group’s resilience.”
In Syria’s rebel-held northwest Idlib province, the experts said groups aligned with al-Qaida continue to dominate the area, with “terrorist fighters” numbering more than 10,000.
“Although there has been only limited relocation of foreign fighters from the region to other conflict zones, member states are concerned about the possibility of such movement, in particular to Afghanistan, should the environment there become more hospitable to ISIL or groups aligned with al-Qaida,” the panel said.
In central, south and southeast Asia, the experts said Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates continue to operate “notwithstanding key leadership losses in some cases and sustained pressure from security forces.”
The experts said the status of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri “is unknown,” and if he is alive several unnamed member states “assess that he is ailing, leading to an acute leadership challenge for al-Qaida.”
The Kennedy Center Honors will return in December with a class that includes Motown Records creator Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” mastermind Lorne Michaels and actress-singer Bette Midler.
Organizers expect to operate at full capacity, after last year’s ceremony was delayed for months and later conducted under COVID-19 restrictions.
This 44th class of honorees for lifetime achievement in the creative arts is heavy on musical performers. The honorees also include opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.
All will be honored on December 5 with a trademark program that includes personalized tributes and performances that are kept secret from the honorees.
Deborah Rutter, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said the current plan is to pack the center’s opera house to full capacity and require all attendees to wear masks. But the plans remain fluid and Rutter said they’re ready to adapt to changing circumstances depending on the country’s COVID-19 situation.
Time to party
“We don’t know for sure what it’s going to be like,” Rutter said in an interview. “But don’t you think we all deserve to have a party?”
The 43rd Kennedy Center Honors class was delayed from December 2020 as the center largely shut down its indoor programming. A slimmed-down ceremony was finally held in May of this year, with a series of small socially distanced gatherings and pre-taped video performances replacing the normal gala event.
“We know how to do it now. We will make whatever adjustments we need,” Rutter said. “We’re going to be wearing masks right up until we don’t have to.”
Midler, 75, has won four Grammy Awards, three Emmys and two Tony Awards, along with two Oscar nominations. Her albums have sold over 30 million copies. In a statement, Midler said she was “stunned and grateful beyond words. For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans.”
Mitchell, 77, emerged from the Canadian coffee shop circuit to become one of the standard-bearers for multiple generations of singer-songwriters. In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine declared her 1971 album “Blue” to be the third-best album of all time. In a brief statement, Mitchell, said, “I wish my mother and father were alive to see this. It’s a long way from Saskatoon.”
The December 5 ceremony will be the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary of cultural programing. The center opened in 1971 and a young Diaz, now 81, actually performed at the grand opening of the opera house.
“It’s a very special thing,” said Diaz, a bass-baritone from San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It’s such a great privilege to be able to say I shared this space with all these geniuses.”
Gordy, 91, founded Motown Records — the Detroit-based hit factory that spawned what became known as the Motown Sound and launched the careers of a huge list of artists, including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas.
Gordy said in an interview that he always held President John Kennedy as one of the greatest leaders in American history.
“So to be honored in his name just means the world to me,” he said.
Michaels, 76, is a comedy institution unto himself — creating and producing “Saturday Night Live” since 1975 and producing dozens of movies and television shows, including “Wayne’s World,” “Kids in the Hall” and “Mean Girls.” He received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award for lifetime achievement in comedy in 2004.
Not normally an on-stage performer, Michaels recalls the Mark Twain evening as “mostly nerve-racking” because he spent the evening dreading the traditional end-of-night speech he had to deliver.
But the Kennedy Center Honors bring no such pressures, and Michaels said he intends to sit back in the special honorees box at the opera house and see what surprises the organizers have in store.
“You don’t have to give a speech at the end, which is huge,” he said. “You’re just there with your friends.”
The United States has extended the closure of land borders it shares with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travel through Aug. 21, the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday.
DHS extended the closures by 30 days after Canada said on Monday it would allow fully vaccinated visitors from the U.S. for non-essential travel beginning Aug. 9, ending a 16-month travel ban prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. and Canada’s easing of travel restrictions comes as the delta variant spreads in parts of the U.S. where vaccination rates are relatively low, raising concern among U.S. health officials.
DHS said it “is in constant contact with Canadian and Mexican counterparts to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably.”
Businesses in the U.S. and Canada have pushed to have limits lifted on non-essential travel between the two countries that were imposed in March 2020.
The U.S. has allowed Canadians to enter the country by air after first receiving a negative COVID-19 test, but Canada has not allowed travelers from the U.S. to do the same.
The Biden administration created interagency working groups last month with Canada, Mexico, Britain and the European Union to study how to eventually lift border and travel restrictions.