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Tokyo 2020 head says ‘impossible’ to delay Olympics as public opposition grows

The president of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, Yoshiro Mori, has said preparations for the summer Olympics will continue, despite growing doubts that the Games can be held while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, said postponing the Games a second time would be “absolutely impossible”.

“Spring will always come, morning will surely come even after long nights,” he said during an online event on Tuesday organised by the Kyodo news agency. “Believing in that, to give joy and hope to many people, we will do our best until the end.”

The Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in March last year to postpone Tokyo 2020 by a year due to the pandemic, and agreed that a second delay was out of the question. The only remaining options are to go head this summer or cancel the games altogether.

Mori conceded that organisers would soon have to decide whether to allow overseas spectators to attend the Games, which are due to open on 23 July. “I think we will have to make a very difficult decision around February to March,” he said.

The IOC and Games organisers insist they have a “toolbox” of measures that will make it possible to ensure the safety of 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as tens of thousands of officials and other Games-related staff, but are not due to reveal detailed plans until the norther hemisphere spring.

Speculation is building that a decision on the Games future will have to be made by the end of March, when the torch relay, involving 10,000 runners, is due to start in Fukushima.

While Japan has avoided the large numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths seen in some other countries, a recent third wave of infections is placing severe strain on its health infrastructure.

Daily cases reached a record 7,882 on Friday lastweek, for a total of nearly 300,000, public broadcaster NHK said, the same day a month-long state of emergency went into effect in Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures.

Japanese media reported that the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, whose approval ratings have plummeted over his poor handling of the pandemic, would expand the state of emergency to seven other prefectures on Wednesday.

In addition, Japan is not due to start vaccinating its 126 million people until late February at the earliest, beginning with 10,000 frontline medical workers, followed by vulnerable older people in March.

Japan’s determination to push ahead with a “safe and secure” Olympics is at odds with public opinion, which has turned against the Games since Covid-19 cases began to surge in the host city and other parts of the country towards the end of last year.

Several opinion polls show a clear majority of people oppose holding the Games this year. On Wednesday, a poll by NHK found that just 16% thought the Olympics should go ahead this year, while a combined 77% said they should be cancelled or postponed.

“The Japanese public are already more and more inclined to oppose the hosting of the Olympics this summer, and the state of emergency reinforces the perception that it is a lost cause,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

The IOC is expected to struggle to win public support for prioritising vaccinations for athletes when so many other people are still unprotected, possibly including large numbers of Japanese.

During his visit to Tokyo in November, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, said athletes would be encouraged to get the vaccine but it would not be a condition for competing at Tokyo 2020.

Jason Kindrachuk, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Manitoba, said allowing athletes to jump the vaccine queue could spark a backlash against the Games.

“Trying to say … that we need to provide these athletes with vaccines because these [Olympics] are a part of our heritage and our national pride is going to be a tough sell,” he said. “Especially when you have a vaccine rollout programme that hasn’t been working very well, you are going to have some people who are frankly quite angry and unhappy about that idea.”

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