On the eve of the Tokyo Games, organisers fired the director of the opening ceremony over a joke he made about the Holocaust, while media reported that former prime minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch advocate for the Tokyo Games, would skip the showpiece event.
The news is the latest in a series of embarrassments for Tokyo organisers that have sparked outrage and comes just days after a well known musician was forced to step down as composer for the ceremony after old reports of his bullying and abusive behaviour surfaced.
Earlier this year, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee resigned after making sexist remarks and the Tokyo Olympics creative head followed after he made derogatory comments about a popular Japanese female entertainer.
Tokyo Games organisers fired Kentaro Kobayashi on Thursday over a joke he made about the Holocaust as part of his comedy act in the 1990s that recently resurfaced in domestic media. The joke included the phrase “Let’s play Holocaust,” according to the Associated Press.
"I offer my deep apology for causing trouble and worry for many people concerned as well as Tokyo residents and Japanese people when the opening ceremony is almost upon us," said a sombre Seiko Hashimoto, who heads the organising committee.
Earlier, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international Jewish human rights organisation, released a statement saying Kobayashi's association with the Olympics would "insult the memory" of the six million Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.
Kobayashi apologised for his past comments in a statement.
Former prime minister Abe, who famously dressed up as the titular plumber from the video game Super Mario at the Rio Games to represent Japan, played an outsized role in attracting the Olympics to Tokyo.
At the time of the bid, Abe and his supporters hoped the Olympics would parallel the 1964 Tokyo Games heralding the nation's revival after decades of economic stagnation and also mark its recovery from a devastating disaster in 2011.
But the spectacle of last-minute personnel changes, the resurfacing of past abusive comments and the looming presence of the pandemic threatened to turn it into a "PR disaster", said Bob Pickard, a veteran PR executive at Signal Leadership Communication.
"Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be a global platform for the launch of a new Japan facing an international future with confidence. Instead, what we see here is the legacy of the old Japan's insular attitudes mired in past prejudices and dated stereotypes," he said.
NHK said Abe decided against attending the ceremony after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions over Tokyo. Abe's office could not immediately be reached on Thursday, a public holiday in Japan.
The opening ceremony on Friday is set to be a subdued affair, with just 950 people — including only around 15 global leaders — set to attend. Spectators have been barred from most Olympic events as Covid-19 cases surge in the capital.
First Lady Jill Biden arrived in Tokyo Thursday afternoon for the Games' opening ceremony, raising expectations that she might also use her attendance to discuss vaccines with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Biden, who is set to dine with Suga and his wife later in the day, has been travelling across the United States urging more people to get inoculated.
Only a third of Japanese have had at least one dose of the vaccine, fuelling public concerns that the Olympics could become a super-spreader event.
In a recent poll, 68 per cent of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organisers to control coronavirus infections, with 55pc saying they opposed the Games going ahead.
Already 87 Olympic-related personnel, including athletes, have tested positive for Covid-19, forcing athlete withdrawals and pushing teammates to isolate.
In light of new cases reported in the Olympic village, the US gymnastics team moved into a hotel, a coach said in a Twitter exchange earlier this week.
Olympic organisers referred Reuters' questions on the topic to the US team.
The Olympics competition has already begun, with the Japanese women's softball team getting the hosts off to a winning start on Wednesday.
Between matches in rural Fukushima, which was devastated by the 2011 nuclear disaster, softball players were on the lookout for a brown bear which had been spotted this week.
"I'm kind of disappointed I didn't get to see it," US pitcher Monica Abbott said.