Cancelling Tokyo Games not off the table, says Japanese politician

Comments send social media in Japan into a frenzy

People walk past a banner with the logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hanging from the wall of the Tokyo Metropolitan City Hall. Photo: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

People walk past a banner with the logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hanging from the wall of the Tokyo Metropolitan City Hall. Photo: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

 

A senior Japanese ruling party official said on Thursday that cancelling this year’s Olympics in Tokyo remains an option if the coronavirus crisis becomes too dire, dropping a bomb on a hot-button issue and sending social media into a frenzy.

The Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee responded with a statement saying all those involved in preparing for the Games remained fully focused on hosting them in the summer.

“If it seems impossible (to host the Olympics) any more, then we have to stop it, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said in comments to broadcaster TBS.

Cancellation is “of course” an option, he said, adding: “If the Olympics were to spread infection, then what are the Olympics for?”

With Japan in the midst of a fourth wave of coronavirus infections, doubts over whether Tokyo would be able to host the Summer Games - already an unpopular idea with the public - have resurfaced in recent weeks.

But government and organising officials have consistently said the Games would go ahead, and the fact that a ruling party heavyweight made the remark was enough to give his comments top billing on domestic news. “Olympics Cancelled” was trending on Twitter in Japan with nearly 50,000 tweets from users as of Thursday afternoon.

“If this person says it, Olympics cancellation looks like a reality,” tweeted @marumaru_clm in reference to Nikai, who is a key backer of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and is known for his frank comments.

“Yay! This is great! Finally, it’s cancelled, cancelled, cancelled!” tweeted another user, @haruha3156.

Nikai later issued a written statement to explain his stance.

“I want the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to succeed,” the statement said. “At the same time, to the question of whether we would host the (Games) no matter what, that is not the case. That’s what I meant by my comments.”

Prime Minister Suga later side-stepped a reporter’s question on whether cancelling was indeed an option, saying only that the government remained committed to controlling the pandemic ahead of the Olympics.

“There’s no change to the government’s stance, to do everything possible to prevent the spread of infections as we head towards the Olympics,” he told reporters in Tokyo ahead of his trip to Washington to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Japan is grappling with rising Covid-19 infections, with new cases in Tokyo jumping to 729 on Thursday, the most since early February. Tokyo, Osaka and several other prefectures entered a quasi-state of emergency this month, asking bars and restaurants to shorten their hours, and four more prefectures were set to be added, local media reported.

Asked about Nikai’s comments, the Tokyo Olympic organising committee said in a statement: “Prime Minister Suga has repeatedly expressed the government’s commitment to holding the Tokyo 2020 Games.

“All our delivery partners including the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) are fully focused on hosting the Games this summer.”

Preparations have included incorporating social distancing measures and other restrictions for the postponed Games, which are set to begin on July 23rd and will be held without international spectators. A scaled-back torch relay is already underway.

“We’ll hold (the Games) in a way that’s feasible,” Taro Kono, a popular minister in charge of Japan’s vaccination drive, said on a separate TV programme, according to Kyodo News. “That may be without spectators,” he added.

Japan’s top medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, acknowledged the pandemic had entered a fourth wave, driven by mutant strains, with Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura urging in a magazine commentary that the Olympics be postponed.

Akira Koike, an opposition lawmaker with the Japanese Communist Party, reacted to Nikai’s comments on Twitter saying that holding the event was already “impossible” and that a swift decision on cancellation should be made.

Cancelling or postponing the Games would probably not hurt Japan’s economy much but would have a larger effect on Tokyo’s service sector, a senior International Monetary Fund official said on Wednesday.

Time is ticking, meanwhile, as the Australian Olympic Committee waits for guidance on when its 1,400-strong Tokyo Games travelling party will receive the Covid-19 vaccine, with Swimming Australia acknowledging it must “prepare for the worst”.

Australia is set to send approximately 450 to 480 athletes to the 2021 Olympics, with almost 1,000 support staff and officials likely to also make the trip to Japan.

Australia has restricted the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people under 50 over blood-clotting concerns, slowing the national vaccination program further after the European Union blocked exports to the country.

The sluggish rollout has raised concerns Australia’s athletes could miss out on vaccines, even as rival nations race ahead with inoculations for their Olympians. Some members of the Olympic contingent have already been vaccinated against Covid-19 because of their jobs, but the vast majority are yet to receive it.

Compounding the issue is that numerous athletes are aiming to compete around the world in key warm-up events prior to flying to Japan for the Olympics.The AOC has repeatedly made it clear it does not wish to jump the queue, but now may be forced to.

“We’re in discussion with minister (Greg) Hunt’s office on a weekly basis,” AOC chief executive Matt Carroll said. “We weren’t expecting athletes or officials to be vaccinated at this time, so we’re not frustrated. Crunch time starts to hit next month, because athletes will start to go overseas. The government is well aware of that.

“I could have clarity (on Thursday). The governments - federal and state - have a lot on their plate at the moment ... we’re working with the government as to how their programs roll out, where they will classify athletes and officials. We’re quite confident.”

Speaking at the national swimming championships on the Gold Coast on Thursday, Swimming Australia’s newly appointed chief executive Alex Baumann said athletes should “prepare for the worst”.

“We have to prepare for the worst. We have to prepare that the athletes won*t be vaccinated,” Swimming Australia’s newly appointed chief executive Alex Baumann said.

“But it really is a choice for the athletes. We’re not going to make it compulsory. Obviously it would be preferable to have the athletes vaccinated. We’ll encourage that.”

The United States headlines the list of nations aiming to vaccinate their entire Olympic team before the Games, while Carroll revealed Australia has been working with Pacific Island countries to try to ensure their Olympians are also vaccinated.

Baumann and SA president Kieren Perkins said no swimmers had approached them with concerns about vaccinations or the narrow time frame to have them before Tokyo.

Perkins said he would not want to influence athletes on their decision to have vaccines if they became available but said he would gladly take the AstraZeneca shot.

“As an Australian citizen who is under 50, I’ve seen the stats and I don’t have any problem taking the AstraZeneca vaccine myself,” the 47-year-old Olympic champion said. “From the minute that I’m able to, I’ll be lining up at the door and going in to get it.”

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