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The many hurdles of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics


The opening ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics are just about 50 days away, and despite Japan’s battle against a fourth wave of COVID-19, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 organising committee are adamant the Games will go ahead.

Here’s where it all stands ahead of what promises to be a turbulent few weeks in the lead-up to the delayed Olympics.

What are the COVID-19 rates in Japan?

To date Japan has reported about 750,000 COVID cases, and more than 13,000 deaths, with a rate of about 600 cases per 100,000 people. (The U.S., for comparison, ranks first in the world with 33.3 million reported cases, nearly 600,000 deaths, and a rate above 10,000 cases per 100,000 people.)

Japan’s cases are now declining after a surge in mid-May that saw more than 7,000 new daily cases reported. On Thursday, 3,061 confirmed cases were reported.

Tokyo and nine other prefectures were placed in a state of emergency in mid-April. These measures were originally meant to last until mid-May, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has continued to extend these restrictions, most recently until June 20.

“The number of newly infected people nationwide has started to decrease since the middle of this month,” Suga said at a news conference on May 28. “However, the situation is still unpredictable.”

These new measures — an escalation from the previous “quasi-emergency measures” — have seen restaurants and bars closed and sporting events held with a maximum of 5,000 spectators. Despite these emergency protocols, IOC vice president John Coates said the Games would go ahead even if Tokyo remained with the same restrictions. “We’ve successfully seen five sports hold their test events during the state of emergency,” Coates said.

“All of the plans that we have in place to protect the safety and security of athletes and the people of Japan are based around the worst possible circumstances, so the answer is absolutely yes [the Games can go ahead].”

What are the views of the Japanese people?

There are notes of caution emanating from the experts. Tokyo Medical Association chairman Haruo Ozaki said on his Facebook page that in his position as “head of the medical workers, I have to say that holding the Games is really difficult.” An editorial in the British Medical Journal titled “Reconsider this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games” said: “While the determination is encouraging, there has been a lack of transparency about the benefits and risk, and international mass gathering events such as Tokyo 2020 are still neither safe nor secure.”

And the public is less than convinced the Games should go ahead. The latest surveys show 80% are in favor of postponing or canceling the Olympics, while a petition to cancel the Games, launched by lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya, has over 400,000 signatures.

Will spectators be allowed to attend?

Foreign visitors and any fans travelling from overseas have already been banned from attending the Olympics, and a final decision will be made in June by the organizers on whether to allow local spectators into the events.

The decision to prohibit overseas spectators affects about 630,000 ticket holders, while the Tokyo organising committee has cut the number of non-competing accreditations for those who hoped to visit. Previously even without the overseas spectators, the organising committee was predicting 90,000 attendees would fly in from overseas.

Japan is presently expecting 59,000 visitors (including media, athletes, broadcasters, coaches, officials and athletics representatives) for the Olympics and Paralympics.

What’s happening with the torch relay?

The short answer: It is now on its fifth rerouting. In mid-April, the relay was taken off the public roads of Osaka and instead held in the closed-off Expo ’70 Commemorative Park. Other prefectures have since followed suit, with the relay largely taking place without spectators.

As of June 1, the relay has passed through 32 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, with Olympic bronze medal swimmer Aye Terakawa taking part in Osaka, astronaut Kimiya Yui a torchbearer in Saku, and 109-year-old Shigeko Kagawa one of the participants in Nara.

What about the test events?

The test event programs called “Ready, Steady, Tokyo” got back underway on April 3, following last year’s postponement. The first event back was wheelchair rugby at the Yoyogi National Stadium with around 100 people in attendance. A number of COVID-19 preventative measures were trialed, including disinfecting the wheels of the chairs. It was the first of a planned 18 events in the lead-up to the reorganised Olympic Games.

Other events did not go as scheduled. On April 1, the international swimming federation (FINA) canceled the Diving World Cup, which was a qualifying event for the Olympics due to be held in Tokyo in mid-April. FINA cited safety concerns and the change in quarantine protocol which would affect athletes.

Then it was rescheduled to early May, and a total of 225 divers from 46 countries participated at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. The athletes operated under strict restrictions, with social interaction limited and distancing enforced.

“We’re not allowed out of our rooms, where you have to stay … no outdoor air, no human interaction,” American diver Sarah Bacon told Reuters. “But we’ve been making it work.”

Since that shaky start, the test events have gone well. Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium hosted its first athletics meet, with 420 athletes taking part in a test event in late April, including USA sprinter Justin Gatlin.

The Tokyo organising committee reports there was just one COVID case, from late April, found during the test events.

Are countries starting to get nervous?

The only country to announce its withdrawal from the Olympics so far is North Korea, which said back on April 6 it would not be attending “in order to protect players from the world public health crisis caused by COVID-19.” The announcement came amidst growing political tensions between the two countries after North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast in March.

South Korea issued a statement saying the country had hoped the Olympic Games this year would be a chance to “foster peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas” ahead of a planned joint bid for the 2032 Olympics.

With North Korea withdrawing, there were concerns it would trigger a domino effect of countries pulling out of the Olympics. But to date North Korea is the sole withdrawal. Though the U.S. issued a travel advisory warning against visiting Japan, the USOPC will still send its athletes to Tokyo.

Will athletes get vaccinated in time?

Japan’s vaccination program has gotten off to a slow start, with fewer than 5% of the population vaccinated by mid-May. As of May 24, however, a mass-vaccination program has gained ground, with the goal of inoculation for all 36 million residents aged 65 years and over by the end of July.

On May 6, vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech announced they would donate doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Olympics.

“This donation of the vaccine is another tool in our toolbox of measures to help make the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games safe and secure for all participants, and to show solidarity with our gracious Japanese hosts,” said the IOC president Thomas Bach.

“We are inviting the athletes and participating delegations of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games to lead by example and accept the vaccine where and when possible.”

What rules will athletes have to follow?

The latest “playbook” (a document which lays out exactly how the Games will operate and the rules participants, officials and others travelling have to obey while in Japan) was published on April 28.

The athletes will operate in bio-secure bubbles and will need to record two negative COVID-19 tests before arrival. Athletes will not be permitted to take public transport or visit restaurants, and have been told to arrive no more than five days prior to competing, and leave no later than two days after they’ve finished. Athletes do not have to quarantine on arrival, however. While World Athletics president Sebastian Coe has expressed his confidence in these protocols being robust enough to prevent any spread of COVID, he did admit the experience will be “sterile” for the athletes.



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