Japan: Olympics to take place without spectators as state of emergency declared

Move essential to stop Tokyo from becoming source of another wave of infections – PM

People wearing face masks walk past the Olympics Rings statue in Tokyo. Photograph: Shinji Kita/Kyodo News/AP

Olympic organisers have decided to ban spectators from the Tokyo Games after Japan's prime minister declared a state of emergency in the host city.

The news was confirmed by the Olympic minister, Tamayo Marukawa, following talks between the government, organisers and Olympic and paralympic representatives - although he left open the possibility that some venues outside Tokyo could still have fans.

“Venues in Tokyo will not include spectators,” said Marukawa. “For those areas where the state of emergency is not implemented ... we will discuss.”

The widely expected move is the latest blow to the troubled Olympics, delayed by a year because of the pandemic and plagued by a series of setbacks, including massive budget overruns.

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But Japan's prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, said it was essential to prevent Tokyo from becoming the source of another wave of infections, especially with the highly infectious Delta Covid-19 variant spreading.

Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency begins on Monday – 11 days before the Games open – and will end on August 22nd, two days before the start of the Paralympics.

Tokyo reported 920 new infections on Wednesday. That compares with 714 last Wednesday and is the highest total since 1,010 were reported on May 13th. It announced 896 new cases on Thursday.

“Taking into consideration the effect of coronavirus variants and the need to prevent infections from spreading to the rest of the nation again, we need to strengthen our countermeasures,” Suga said. “Given the situation, we will issue a state of emergency for Tokyo.”

Alcohol ban

Weeks of quasi-emergency measures targeting Tokyo’s night-time economy have failed to prevent the latest wave of cases. The government will reimpose an unpopular ban on serving alcohol at bars and restaurants, which will also have to close early.

The emergency declaration in Tokyo – the centre of Japan’s outbreak for much of the pandemic – is an embarrassment for Suga, whose handling of the crisis saw his party perform badly in Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections last weekend.

“Politically speaking, having no spectators is now unavoidable,” a ruling party source told Reuters.

Suga’s insistence that organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be able to stage a “safe and secure” Olympics even as cases rise in the host city could further anger voters just a few months out from a general election.

The IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee said last month that attendances would be capped at 50 per cent of a venue’s capacity, or a maximum of 10,000 people.

But Suga and the organising committee’s president, Seiko Hashimoto, said a ban on fans was also an option, depending on the number of virus cases in the host city.

Medical advisers have said that having no spectators at the Games would be the least risky option, amid public concern that the arrival of tens of thousands of athletes, officials, sponsors reports and support staff could trigger a new wave of infections.

Having banned overseas sports fans, the Olympic movement was pinning its hopes on a limited number of Japanese spectators creating a semblance of atmosphere.

But with the opening ceremony just two weeks away, it is looking more likely that competitions will take place in empty venues, including the opening ceremony at the new $1.4bn national stadium. IOC officials and sponsors, however, could attend in their role as “organisers”, media reports have said.

Thursday’s talks between the IOC, organisers and Japanese government officials will include the IOC’s president, Thomas Bach, who arrived in Tokyo to oversee the last phase of preparations.

Bach, who is reportedly self-isolating at his five-star hotel for three days, and other senior IOC officials have drawn criticism for insisting the Games will go ahead regardless of case numbers and pressure on medical services in Tokyo.

Earlier this year, John Coates, an IOC vice-president who is overseeing preparations, said the Games could “absolutely” be held even if Tokyo were under a state of emergency.

Suga has backed the IOC’s push to stage the Games, despite widespread opposition among the Japanese public and warnings from his own chief medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, that the Olympics – combined with the summer holidays and the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant – could lead to a surge in infections.

“Infections are in their expansion phase and everyone in this country must firmly understand how serious that is,” Omi told reporters on Wednesday. “The period from July to September is the most critical time for Japan’s Covid-19 measures.”

Japan has reported about 810,000 cases and nearly 14,900 deaths. Only 15 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, compared with 47.4 per cent in the US and over 50 per cent in Britain.