Tokyo organisers warn of no-fan Olympics as virus cases rise

Published July 3, 2021
Polls show many Japanese oppose holding the Olympics given warnings from health experts that it could unleash another wave of infections. — AFP/File
Polls show many Japanese oppose holding the Olympics given warnings from health experts that it could unleash another wave of infections. — AFP/File

TOKYO: Tokyo Olympics organisers will not insist on allowing spectators “at all costs”, the head of the Games organising committee said on Friday, amid concerns about a fresh wave of Covid-19 infections three weeks before the sports extravaganza begins.

Polls show many Japanese oppose holding the Olympics given warnings from health experts that it could unleash another wave of infections. Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, the Games are scheduled to start on July 23.

“The infection situation changes on a day-to-day basis, and it’s still unclear what the situation will look like,” Tokyo 2020 organising committee president Seiko Hashimoto told reporters.

“But from Tokyo 2020’s perspective, having no spectators is an option so that we can be prepared for whatever the situation may be.”

Hashimoto said any decision would be taken in line with government policy.

“It’s not that we are determined to have spectators regardless of the situation,” Hashimoto said. “We will follow the government standards. Unless it’s safe and secure, we cannot allow spectators.”

Having decided to ban overseas spectators, the organisers have capped the number of domestic spectators at 10,000 per venue for the Games, or 50% of capacity, despite medical experts saying no spectators would be the “least risky” option.

Prime Minister Yoshihide said on Thursday that having no spectators remained a “possibility”. And on Friday, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, at her first news conference after leaving hospital, where she was treated for exhaustion, also said having no spectators was an option if the pandemic worsened.

Yet another decision on fans could be announced next week after a meeting of the International Olympic Committee, local organisers, the Japanese government, Tokyo metropolitan government officials, and the International Paralympic Committee.

Brushing aside concerns the Olympics could become a “superspreader” event, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics and a member of the IOC, told CNBC on Thursday the Games “will go ahead and they should go ahead”.

But the Euro 2020 football tournament — which has been blamed this week for a surge in Covid-19 cases as fans flocked to stadiums, bars and spectator zones across Europe — is likely to further fuel worries in Japan.

The World Health Organization, which is advising the IOC, urged caution so as to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The WHO was learning from Euro 2020, said Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, adding: “If the virus is present and precautions are not in place the virus will spread.”

The governors of Chiba and Saitama prefectures near Tokyo have already urged organisers to ban spectators from night-time events in their localities.

The governor of Hokkaido in northern Japan, meanwhile, has indicated he would prefer if people did not come to watch the marathon along its routes in the city of Sapporo and has asked organisers to come up with safety protocols.

The government is also expected to make a call next week on whether to lift a state of “quasi-emergency” in Tokyo and other parts of the country.

Japan is likely to extend by two weeks or more its COVID-19 containment measures in the greater Tokyo area after the current July 11 deadline, government sources have said.

Japan has not suffered the explosive Covid-19 outbreak seen elsewhere but the potential spread of more contagious variants and a slow initial rollout of vaccines have fuelled concerns, as only about 23% of the population has had at least one shot.

Tokyo recorded 660 cases of the virus on Friday, the 13th straight day of week-on-week gains.

Since the pandemic first struck, Japan has recorded more than 796,800 COVID-19 cases and over 14,770 deaths.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 4th, 2021

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