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Olympics will happen ‘however COVID evolves’: Tokyo 2020 chief

TOKYO: A couple checks pictures after posing in front of the Olympic rings on display at the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo yesterday. – AFP

TOKYO: The pandemic-postponed Olympics will go ahead this summer “however the coronavirus evolves,” Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori said yesterday, brushing aside doubts about the event. Organizers, Japan’s government and Olympic officials are trying to shore up support for the Games despite a surge in infections around the world, less than six months before the opening ceremony.

Doubts about the Games have grown as countries have been forced to re-enter lockdowns, with large parts of Japan currently under a virus state of emergency, but Mori sounded a confident note. “We’ll certainly go ahead however the coronavirus (pandemic) evolves,” he told a meeting of Olympic organizers and members of Japan’s ruling party in Tokyo.

“We must go beyond discussion about whether we will hold it or not. It’s about how we will do it. Let’s think about a new kind of Olympics on this occasion,” he added. The comments came hours before Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a month-long extension of the state of emergency — meaning the measure will run until March 7 in Tokyo and several other parts of the country.

Tighter border restrictions imposed after infections surged have already forced the postponement of some sporting fixtures including this year’s first Olympic test event, an artistic swimming qualifier that was scheduled for March. The nationwide Olympic torch relay is still due to begin on March 25.

Organizers are expected today to outline further details of the extensive coronavirus countermeasures they have devised for the 2020 Games, which were pushed back to 2021 last March as COVID-19 spread around the globe. But Japanese public opinion appears opposed to holding the Games this year, with 80 percent of people backing either further postponement or a cancellation in surveys.

‘Hopes and dreams’
Organizers have said neither of those options are on the table, and have received strong support from both the International Olympic Committee and athletes around the world. Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto told the meeting she too was confident the Games could go ahead. “Making the Tokyo Games a success will demonstrate the world is united,” said Hashimoto, herself a former Olympian. She said it would deliver “hopes and dreams” to the world, and “send a message that Japan can contribute to solving issues that the world faces”.

While organizers have clung to the line that the Games will open as scheduled on July 23, key decisions about the shape of the event remain — including whether foreign fans will be able to come and how many spectators will be in the venues. Local medical associations have urged organizers to limit fans, warning the country’s healthcare system has been overburdened in the current wave of infections.

IOC chief Thomas Bach acknowledged for the first time last month that the Games could take place behind closed doors. “This I cannot tell you,” he said, when asked if fans would be able to attend. “Our priority is to ensure safe Olympic Games and we will do whatever is needed to organize safe Olympic Games.”

The thorny question of vaccination also hangs over the event, with Olympic and Paralympic officials keen to encourage athletes to be vaccinated where possible but to avoid being seen as promoting queue-jumping. Japan has yet to approve any coronavirus vaccines, and is not expected to start inoculating its population before late February at the earliest. – AFP


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