Japan doubled down on its commitment to host the Tokyo Olympics this year and flatly denied reports of a cancellation, in a move that is unlikely to temper public fears of holding the event during a global pandemic.
Though much of Japan is under a state of emergency due to a third wave of Covid-19 infections, Tokyo organisers have consistently vowed to press ahead with the Games scheduled to open on 23 July after having been postponed in March last year.
A government spokesman said there was “no truth” to a report in The Times that Japan was now focused on rescheduling the event to 2032.
“We will clearly deny the report,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai said in a press conference on Friday.
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee also denied the report, saying its partners including the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee were “fully focused” on hosting the games as scheduled.
In early international reactions, the Australian and United States Olympic Committees said they were preparing for the Games as planned.
“Unfortunately, I need to address unfounded rumours that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be cancelled, rumours that only create more anxiety for athletes,” Matt Carroll, the chief executive of the Australian committee, told reporters in Sydney.
“The Tokyo Games are on. The flame will be lit on July 23, 2021.”
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) is run by the IOC’s pointman for the Tokyo Games John Coates.
Olympic committees from the United States and Canada wrote on Twitter they had not received any information suggesting the Games would not happen as planned.
Earlier The Times reported that Japan’s government had privately concluded the Tokyo Olympics will have to be cancelled because of the pandemic.
The newspaper said the government’s focus is now on securing the games for Tokyo in the next available year.
Japan has been hit less severely by the pandemic than many other advanced economies, but a recent surge in cases has spurred it to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and major cities.
About 80 percent of people in Japan do not want the games to be held this summer, recent opinion polls show, over fears the influx of athletes will spread the virus further.
Against this backdrop, the government is seeking a way to save face by announcing a cancellation that leaves the door open to Tokyo hosting at a later date, The Times report said.
“No one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it’s too difficult,” The Times quoted the source as saying. “Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week said the showpiece event would “bring hope and courage to the world”.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach also reaffirmed his commitment to holding the games this year in an interview with Kyodo News on Thursday.
“We have at this moment, no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on the 23rd of July in the Olympic stadium in Tokyo,” Bach told Kyodo.
Six months to go
With much of Japan under a state of emergency due to a third wave of Covid-19 infections, organisers of the Olympics will mark six months to go on Saturday with little fanfare, no fireworks and amid rapidly dwindling public support.
Postponed by a year due to the pandemic, there will be no more delays for the 2020 Games, organisers have stressed, despite a recent Kyodo News survey showing 80 percent of people in Japan want the event either cancelled or rescheduled.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed on Monday to forge ahead with preparations for the games, though just days earlier a cabinet minister had said the hosts needed to be ready for any outcome.
On a two-day visit to Tokyo in November, IOC chief Thomas Bach expressed confidence the Olympic and Paralympic Games would go ahead but the public remained deeply concerned about hosting a gathering of some 15,000 international athletes amid a sharp rise in infections.
Organisers are expected to make a decision in February or March whether the coronavirus risks have eased enough to let spectators attend the Games, even without a comprehensive global vaccine rollout.
Senior IOC member Dick Pound is among those who have suggested athletes should be at the front of the queue for vaccines to boost the chances of the games going ahead, though this provoked a backlash from the public, health experts and athletes themselves.
Bach has said vaccinations would not be mandatory, describing them as just “one tool in the toolbox”, and the Japanese government is confident its existing Covid-19 countermeasures would be effective.
“We are considering comprehensive measures to hold a safe and secure games, even without making vaccines a condition,” Japan’s top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said on Tuesday.
Games like no other
If the games get the green light, athletes arriving in Japan will experience an Olympics like no other.
Organisers have said they will not need to quarantine but there will be stringent health protocols in place and they will be tested regularly.
There will be a limit placed on the number of athletes allowed to attend the opening ceremony at the $US1.44 billion National Stadium and social distancing measures at the Athletes Village will also be enforced.
The presence of media, sponsors and other outside stakeholders will be kept to a minimum at the games.
In September, Japan’s Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto said the games would be held “at any cost” but the pandemic may take the decision out of organisers hands.
It was in March last year that the Japanese government and IOC took the unprecedented decision to postpone the games and it seems likely that any move to cancel the event would come before the start of the torch relay on 25 March.
Such a move would be would not only result in deep national embarrassment and deprive many athletes of their only chance to compete at an Olympics, it could leave Japan with billions of dollars in losses.
On top of the $12.6b already earmarked by Japan for the games, the additional cost of rearranging the Olympics is expected to come in at $2.8b, most of which is public money.
But World Athletics head Seb Coe, who was the chairman of the 2012 organising committee, is confident in Japan’s ability to get the games on.
“Of all the countries on the planet that really has the fortitude, and resilience and the street-smarts to see this through, it is actually Japan,” he told Sky News.
“I wake up as a federation president really grateful that it is Japan that’s dealing with this and not some other places that I can think of. So I’m sure we will be there.”
The games are scheduled to run from 23 July-8 August.