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How is Japan hoping to deliver a Covid-secure Olympics?
The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is finally due to get underway on Friday 23 July, a year late and with the event mired in doubt and anxiety about whether it really ought to be going ahead at all given that Japan is currently mired in its fifth wave of coronavirus infections.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has nevertheless promised to deliver a “safe and secure” tournament that will serve as a gesture of global solidarity after 18 months of pandemic misery.
“These will be historic Olympic Games for the way the Japanese people overcame so many challenges in the last couple of years, the great east Japan earthquake and now the coronavirus pandemic,” he said last week.
Also very on-message was Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who commented: “As we confront the major challenges posed by Covid-19 around the world, it is even more important that we send out the strong message that we will unite and overcome this crisis through our efforts and the wisdom of humankind.”
The event is being strictly controlled to minimise the chance of Covid infections spreading, the organisers insist, with no spectators allowed into the stadia (this now extends to domestic fans too, not just foreign visitors originally hoping to fly in for the Games) and rigid measures in place across the Olympic Village in Tokyo Bay, where the 11,000 athletes and their coaches are staying.
Mr Bach insists that 85 per cent of guests staying at the village and almost all IOC officials and staff were either “vaccinated or immune” (US swimmer Michael Andrew is not, for one) and that daily testing protocols would mitigate the risks posed by the thousands of foreigners arriving at once.
Visiting athletes, officials and media will be living in a “soft quarantine” bubble and have their movements restricted to the Olympic venues, the village and designated hotels.
They will be banned from fraternising with the Japanese general public in order to limit the risk of transmission.
But, despite these assurances, a spate of positive tests coming just days out from the opening ceremony has shown the IOC’s regulations are far from foolproof.
How many athletes have already been ruled out because of Covid?
On Monday, an unidentified US gymnast became the latest athlete to test positive for coronavirus.
The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee said in a statement that Japanese regulations were being adhered to: “In alignment with local rules and protocols, the athlete has been transferred to a hotel to quarantine.”
Six athletes and two staff members from the Team GB athletics team are meanwhile self-isolating in Tokyo after being identified as close contacts of an individual who subsequently tested positive for the virus, according to the British Olympic Association.
Almost all of the athletes from the Olympic refugee team have also had their arrival in the Japanese capital delayed after one of their officials tested positive, leaving them stranded at a training camp in Qatar.
Of all sports, tennis has been particularly hard-hit by Covid so far, with US teenage prodigy Coco Gauff and Australia’s Alex De Minaur the latest to drop out of the 2020 Games after returning positive tests, joining the likes of Britain’s Dan Evans and Johanna Konta in watching from home.
Another Australian, Nick Kyrgios, has also pulled out of the competition, preferring to recuperate rather than play to empty arenas.
Why are we asking this now?
While the 2020 Olympics was supposed to be a celebration of Japan’s triumphant bounceback from the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster that devastated the country in 2011, conjuring memories of the 1964 Games when the country first claimed its place on the post-war world stage as a modern democratic state, few now believe that pressing ahead is the right call.
Japan recorded a further 3,065 new Covid cases on Sunday, marking a full month of incremental daily increases, and has suffered 842,000 infections and almost 15,000 deaths in total since the onset of the pandemic early last year, with criticism mounting over the slow pace of the country’s vaccine rollout and only 27.7 per cent of the population immunised so far, according to Reuters.
Tokyo will begin its implication under a state of emergency warning.
Even aside from fears the 2020 Games could inadvertently become a superspreader event, the rising cost to the taxpayer has also provoked opposition, with many arguing the event is prioritising billion-yen broadcast rights and corporate sponsorship deals over safety.
To state their opposition, an estimated 200 protestors gathered outside Shinjuku station in central Tokyo on Sunday brandishing signs that read “No Olympics.”
“This is ignoring human rights and our right to life,” protester Karoi Todo told the AP. “Infections are increasing. To do the Olympics is unforgivable.”
Perhaps the clearest indication yet that these Games are ill-advised was the surprise decision by Japanese auto giant Toyota to pull all advertising associated with the competition.
“There are many issues with these Games that are proving difficult to be understood,” its chief communications officer Jun Nagata commented, tellingly, on Monday.