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Top Japanese politician says virus could force Olympics cancellation

KIEV: Anna Ilina, a member of the Ukrainian Olympic shooting team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, flanked by the country’s Health Minister Maksym Stepanov, receives a dose of China’s CoronaVac vaccine yesterday. – AFP

TOKYO: A senior Japanese politician said cancelling the Tokyo Olympics over the coronavirus remains a possibility yesterday, as a surge in cases renews concerns about the Games with less than 100 days to go. Toshiro Nikai, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s number two, said the Olympics must be cancelled “without hesitation” if the virus situation is too severe.

A year after their historic postponement, the 2020 Olympics remain beset by pandemic problems, with parts of the torch relay forced behind closed doors and public support consistently low. Organizers and Olympic officials insist the Games will go ahead safely, but Nikai said Thursday that all options were on the table.

“We need to make a decision depending on the situation at the time,” he told the private TBS television network. “We need to cancel it without hesitation if they’re no longer possible,” added Nikai, who is the LDP’s secretary general. Asked if he considered cancellation an option, Nikai said: “Yes of course. If infection spreads because of the Olympics, I don’t know what the Olympics is for.”

He added however that he sees the Games as an “opportunity”, and it was “important for Japan to foster excitement with support from the public”. “We definitely want to make a success. In order to do so, there are various issues to solve. It’s important to solve them one by one.”

‘Might be no spectators’
The comments were quickly dismissed by an unnamed LDP official, who told the Jiji news agency: “The Games will not be cancelled.” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she had “been told that the comment meant it is an option”. “I take it as a message of strong encouragement that we contain the coronavirus by all means,” she said.

Japan’s vaccine minister meanwhile mooted the possibility of a total bar on spectators at the Games. “We’ll hold the Olympics in a form that is feasible,” the Asahi newspaper quoted Taro Kono as saying. “There might be no spectators.” Nikai’s remarks come with fresh worries in Japan about what experts have called a fourth wave of infections.

Record numbers of cases have been reported in Osaka in recent days, and the government has been forced to authorise new restrictions just weeks after lifting a virus state of emergency. The surge has already forced the Olympic torch relay off public roads in Osaka, and a city in western Japan also announced Wednesday that it would cancel the public event.

‘Neither safe nor secure’
Compounding the problem is the comparatively slow roll-out of the vaccine in Japan, which has so far only approved the Pfizer/BioNTech version. Around 1.1 million people in the country of 126 million have received a first dose of vaccine so far, with the roll-out only expanding to the elderly this week. Despite the problems, Olympic organizers insist the Games can be held safely and have released virus rulebooks to allay public fears.

Athletes will not be required to quarantine or be vaccinated, but will have to limit movements and be tested regularly. Overseas fans are barred from attending, with a decision on domestic spectator limits expected later this month. However many fans are allowed to attend, the atmosphere will be markedly different from Games past, with cheering strictly banned.

Organizers note that sporting events are continuing in Japan, including some international fixtures such as the World Team Trophy figure skating, which opened in Osaka yesterday. But opinion polls show most Japanese favor postponing or cancelling of the Games, with those in support hovering below 30 percent.

Medical professionals have also warned the Games are a risky prospect, with four experts writing in the British Medical Journal this week urging plans for the event “be reconsidered as a matter of urgency”. “International mass gathering events such as Tokyo 2020 are still neither safe nor secure,” they wrote. Despite the obstacles, International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates on Wednesday said organizers were “certainly not” considering a cancellation. “Of course we’re concerned, of course safety remains our priority, but we believe that we’re prepared for the worst situations,” he said. – AFP

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