10,000 volunteers drop out with Tokyo Olympics to open in 50 days

Published June 4, 2021
The logo of the Tokyo Olympic Games, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building in Tokyo. — Reuters/File
The logo of the Tokyo Olympic Games, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building in Tokyo. — Reuters/File

TOKYO: The countdown clock for the Tokyo Olympics hit 50-days-to-go on Thursday, and the day also brought another problem for the delayed Games.

About 10,000 of 80,000 unpaid volunteers for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have told organisers they will not participate when the Games open on July 23.

Organisers said some dropped out because of worries about Covid-19. Few volunteers are expected to be vaccinated since most will have no contact with athletes or other key personnel.

Only about 2-3% of Japan’s general population has been fully vaccinated in a very slow rollout that is just now speeding up. Conversely, the International Olympic Committee expects at least 80% of athletes and residents of the Olympic Village to be fully vaccinated.

“We have not confirmed the individual reasons,” organisers said in a statement.

In addition to concerns about the coronavirus infection, some dropped out because they found it would be difficult to actually work after checking their work shift, or due to changes in their own environment.

Organisers said the loss would not affect the operations of the postponed Olympics.

Unpaid volunteers are a key workforce in running the Olympics and save organizers millions of dollars in salaries. Volunteers typically get a uniform, meals on the days they work, and have daily commuting costs covered. They pay their own lodging.

A study done for the International Olympic Committee on volunteers at the 2000 Sydney Olympics said their value was at least $60 million for 40,000 volunteers.

To mark 50 days, organisers unveiled the podiums, costumes and music that will be used during the medal ceremonies. Organising committee president Seiko Hashimoto again promised the Olympics will be safe for the athletes.

“We have 50 days left. I feel like I can hear the sound of the athletes’ footsteps heading to Tokyo,” Hashimoto said at the ceremony in the Ariake arena, a Games venue. “The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee will absolutely make sure to protect the health of the athletes.

“We’re fully ready and prepared with infection prevention measures, so please feel safe and reassured coming to Japan,” she added. “And for Japan to feel safe in welcoming you, I ask you, all the athletes, to be responsible with your actions, to follow the rules.”

Support for the Olympics continues to lag in Japan with 50-80%, depending how the question is phrased, saying the Games should not open on July 23.

Most of the capital’s city council, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, agree, the Tokyo Shimbun paper reported on Thursday.

However, Hashimoto countered the gloom, telling the Nikkan Sports newspaper: “We cannot postpone again.”

“If various countries around the world experience very serious situations, and delegations from most countries can’t come, then we wouldn’t be able to hold it,” she said. “But conversely, unless such a situation emerges, the Games will not be cancelled.”

Hashimoto, who competed in seven summer and winter Olympics as a cyclist and skater, also told the BBC that while Japanese were understandably worried, they should be reassured that a “bubble situation” was being carefully constructed.

“I believe that the possibility of these Games going on is 100 percent that we will do this,” Hashimoto added, saying that fans could be locked out during the Games.

“The biggest challenge will be how we can control and manage the flow of people,” she said.

“If an outbreak should happen during the Games times that amounts to a crisis or an emergency situation then I believe we must be prepared to have these Games without any spectators.

“One thing the organising committee commits and promises to all the athletes out there is that we will defend and protect their health.”

Hashimoto acknowledged the sadness of having no outside spectators at an event that is normally an enormous global party.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they [athletes] can compete in the Games,” she said. “To not be able to have family members and friends who have supported them all along must be a very painful thing and that has caused me pain too.”

Tokyo is officially spending $15.4 billion to organise the Olympics, and several government audits say it’s much more. All but $6.7 billion is public money. The IOC’s contribution is about $1.5 billion.

Japan has attributed just over 13,000 deaths to Covid-19, far lower than most comparable countries, but higher than many Asian neighbours.

On Thursday, the Japanese football association said a member of the Ghana team had tested positive upon arrival in Tokyo. The player was separated from the team and placed in quarantine.

Earlier in the week, football players from Jamaica were unable to go to Japan because of issues with coronavirus testing. They were to have played the Japanese national team in a friendly.

Taiwan’s baseball team, which is ranked fourth in the world, pulled out of the final qualifying tournament for the Olympics as it could not find anywhere safe to practice at home and was worried about health risks at the event in Mexico.

Even so, Taiwan still hopes its athletes will have a chance to compete, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters, saying efforts by Japan and international Olympic officials to put on the event were highly appreciated.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2021

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