Olympian Yamaguchi says Japan ‘cornered’ into holding Games

Published June 5, 2021
Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee's Executive Board, gives an interview in Tokyo, Japan. — Reuters/File
Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee's Executive Board, gives an interview in Tokyo, Japan. — Reuters/File

TOKYO: One of Japan’s sporting heroes and a member of the local Olympic committee said on Friday her nation had been “cornered” into pressing ahead with the 2020 Games despite public opposition during the coronavirus pandemic.

The comments by Japanese Olympics Committee board member Kaori Yamaguchi, a judo medallist, added to rancour around Japan where the Games were postponed last year but are now due to start on July 23 despite a fourth wave of infections.

Most Japanese oppose hosting the Olympics but some foreign athletes have started arriving and organisers insist the $15 billion global sports showpiece remains on track.

Yamaguchi, who won a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Games, accused the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Japan’s government and the Tokyo 2020 organising body of shunning dialogue and riding roughshod over public opinion.

“What will these Olympics be for and for whom? The Games have already lost meaning and are being held just for the sake of them. I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel,” she wrote in an opinion piece for Kyodo news agency.

“It would require too much energy to make and follow through with such a decision. We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not.”

Yamaguchi also hit out at the IOC, which has repeatedly asserted that the mega-event will go ahead despite the pandemic.

“The IOC also seems to think that public opinion in Japan is not important,” she said, citing shock over comments by vice-president John Coates.

When asked in May if the Games could be held even during a virus state of emergency, Coates had said “the answer is absolutely yes”.

Foreign spectators are already prohibited from the Olympics and Japanese may also be kept away from what organisers promise will be a sanitized “bubble” event to minimise contagion risk while also bringing cheer to a world battered by Covid-19.

There is talk of banning cheering, hugging and high-fives.

However, many Japanese fear the events could drain medical resources and spread the virus. Host city Tokyo is under a state of emergency this month and thousands of volunteers have quit.

In her weekly briefing on Friday, organising committee president Seiko Hashimoto said organisers would follow government guidance on having any local fans. That decision was expected on June 20 when the current state of emergency in Tokyo expires.

The government’s top medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, told lawmakers on Friday that the Games should not go ahead if the emergency measures are extended past their current end-date of June 20.

“We must absolutely avoid hosting the Olympics under a state of emergency,” he said, according to broadcaster TBS, urging the government to strengthen restrictions so the emergency declarations can end before the Games.

On the sports front, U.S. Olympic 100 metres hurdles champion Brianna McNeal’s participation in Tokyo was in doubt after the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) said she had been banned for five years for an anti-doping rule violation.

McNeal, who won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was still allowed, however, to compete until the end of the US Olympic trials on June 27. She denies testing positive for any banned substance and her appeal will be heard before the Tokyo Games start, the AIU said.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2021

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