TOKYO: Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference on a new COVID-19 coronavirus state of emergency stretching throughout the Tokyo Olympics, at the prime minister's official residence yesterday. - AFP

TOKYO: Fans will be banned from Olympic venues in Tokyo and the capital will be under a virus state of emergency throughout the pandemic-postponed Games, Japan's government announced yesterday, just two weeks before the opening ceremony. The decision means Tokyo 2020 will be the first Games ever held largely behind closed doors, the latest unprecedented decision about a Games that will be like no other.

When the Games were postponed last year as the scale of the pandemic became clear, there was talk that the event would be staged as proof the world had overcome the virus. But that triumphant talk has given way to the harsh reality of new infection surges and more contagious variants, including the Delta strain which has spooked officials in Japan.

The country has seen a comparatively small virus outbreak, and avoided tough lockdowns, but it also moved slowly to start vaccinations and only about 15 percent of its population is fully vaccinated so far. With infections rising in the capital, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday announced Tokyo would be under a virus emergency from July 12 until August 22.

The measure is significantly looser than lockdowns seen elsewhere, largely limiting alcohol sales, shortening opening hours for restaurants and capping event attendances at 5,000 people. But it signals a growing concern about the current rate of infections, and appears to have piled pressure on Olympic organizers who had hoped to have up to 10,000 local fans in venues after barring overseas spectators.

Organizers met yesterday evening with local and national government officials and Olympic and Paralympic chiefs to take what Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto termed a "very difficult decision". "We reached an agreement on no spectators at venues in Tokyo," Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa said after the talks. Most Olympic events are being staged in Tokyo, but some - including surfing, football, baseball and the marathon - will take place outside the capital.

Marukawa said a decision on spectators at events outside Tokyo would be taken in consultation with the governors of each region. The ban comes after Suga announced the new emergency measures, which he said would not interfere with holding the Games. "We will host the Games under the state of emergency," he told reporters. "I think we can realise a safe and secure Games by taking these measures."

Delta variant fears

International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach, who arrived in Japan earlier Thursday, said he would "support any measure which is necessary to have a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games for the Japanese people and all participants". Organizers are at pains to insist the Games can go ahead and will be safe for local residents and Olympic participants. But they face the reality of rising infections, with Japan's minister in charge of the virus response Yasutoshi Nishimura warning earlier Thursday that the Delta variant now accounts for around 30 percent of cases in the capital. "This is expected to expand further," he warned.

Japan has so far recorded around 14,900 deaths, despite avoiding harsh lockdowns, but the government has been criticized over the slow start to its vaccination program. And there are concerns that the Delta variant could produce a new wave that might quickly overwhelm local medical resources. Olympic organizers have drawn up extensive measures including daily testing for athletes and limits on their movement that they say will keep the public and Games participants safe. While vaccination is not required to participate in the Games, Bach said yesterday that 85 percent of arriving Olympic delegations would be inoculated, and almost 100 percent of IOC staff and members.

Despite the measures, Tokyo 2020 is struggling to build momentum and enthusiasm for the Games as the final countdown begins. A torch relay that was supposed to stoke excitement as it travelled nationwide has been taken off public roads in much of the country over virus risks, and even its legs in the capital will now be held without spectators. And fans have been asked to avoid the route of the Olympic marathon when it is run in northern Hokkaido. Polls show most Japanese would prefer the Games be postponed again or cancelled outright, though opposition has softened in recent weeks. - AFP