Olympic chiefs meet Friday to discuss ways of pushing ahead with plans for a “frugal” Tokyo Games next year, just as the Japanese capital is rocked by a record number of daily coronavirus infections.
Tokyo is on its highest COVID-19 alert level after a spike in new cases, Governor Yuriko Koike warned Wednesday, as experts said the rising infections were a clear “red flag”.
Japan has had just over 22,500 cases and close to 1,000 deaths since the disease was first detected in the country. No one has died of coronavirus in Tokyo for three weeks.
Japanese borders remain closed to nationals of more than 100 countries and even foreign permanent residents, but the government is launching a domestic tourism drive that has come under fire over fears it could spread the virus around the country.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), holding a virtual Executive Board meeting and 136th IOC Session, will call on their Tokyo Olympics taskforce to provide some answers as planning forges ahead for the hosting of the multi-billion-dollar event.
The meeting falls just two days before elections for Tokyo governor, with incumbent Koike widely expected to win a second term.
In a recent interview with AFP, Koike said she was continuing to “make all-out efforts in the battle against the virus to put on a Games that is full of hope”.
But one rival to Koike, Taro Yamamoto, says he would scrap the Tokyo Olympics altogether, seemingly tapping into a growing weariness with the Summer Games, now due to begin on July 23, 2021 after the historic one-year postponement due to the coronavirus.
Just over half of Tokyo’s residents do not think the Games should be held next year, backing either a further delay or an outright cancellation, according to a poll published late last month.
– ‘It’s about unity’ –
IOC president Thomas Bach will be desperate not to lose support from the Japanese public, stressing Wednesday that he wanted the Games to be “frugal, concentrating on the essentials and the spirit and the message of these Olympic Games”.
“The spirit of the Olympic Games is about the athletes and sports excellence,” Bach said.
“It’s about unity. It’s about bringing the entire world together.”
Bach added that banning fans from the Tokyo Olympics was “clearly something we don’t want”, adding that “multiple scenarios” were under consideration for the rescheduled Games.
Bach said safety was the top concern for organisers, but he clearly signalled his reluctance to hold the Games at empty stadiums, now a common sight in sport as other competitions make a tentative return from virus-enforced shutdowns.
“We are working for a solution of the Olympic Games which, on one hand, is safeguarding the health of all the participants and, on the other hand, is also reflecting the Olympic spirit,” the IOC chief said.
Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have both warned that it would be hard to postpone the Games beyond 2021, raising the nightmare scenario of the first Olympics to be cancelled in peace time.
Also on the agenda for the IOC Session will be the approval of Sebastian Coe, the head of World Athletics, as an IOC member after being turned down several times.
Coe, the two-time Olympic 1,500 metres champion for Britain who became head of athletics’ world governing body in 2015, was blocked from membership as recently as December over a conflict of interest.
But Coe changed his role at the CSM company he is currently running as managing director to a passive position, thus paving the way to IOC membership.
Coe’s belated entry into the IOC club is significant because he has been mentioned as a potential future president of the Olympic movement.
Four others have also been put forward for individual IOC membership: Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, former Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Cuban Olympic Committee (COC) board member Maria de la Caridad Colon Ruenes and acting Mongolian National Olympic Committee president Battushig Batbold.