TOKYO — The International Olympic Committee this week unveiled updated plans for holding the Summer Games in Japan, meticulous “playbooks” that promise to ensure the safety not only of the athletes taking part but also of the Japanese public during a global pandemic.
They represent “very hard work” and “determination, a lot of determination” to stage the Games safely and successfully, the IOC’s sports director, Christophe Dubi, said at a news conference, and they are based on the latest scientific expertise as well as considerable experience with holding global sporting events during the pandemic. IOC President Thomas Bach said his confidence the Olympics can go ahead also is based on his admiration for the “great resilience and spirit” of the Japanese people.
“The Japanese people have demonstrated their perseverance throughout their history, and it's only because of this ability of the Japanese people to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible,” he said.
Yet Bach’s comments provoked a howl of protest on Japanese social media. His rhetoric ignored the fact that most people here simply don’t want the Games to go ahead — and don’t see why they need to be subjected to adversity at the IOC’s behest.
The meticulous planning, meanwhile, has one potentially fatal flaw: Japan’s already overloaded health system can’t cope with the additional demands the Games will bring without putting more lives at risk, doctors and nurses say. The Olympics would involve more than 11,000 athletes plus tens of thousands of officials, coaches, media members and support staffers converging on Tokyo, which is closed to most foreign visitors.
“Most health workers say even thinking about the Olympics is just ridiculous,” said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious-disease expert and doctor at Kobe University Hospital, which is in a city in western Japan where 1,700 people with covid-19 need hospitalization but can’t get a bed.
“We are really fighting a life-and-death situation,” he said. “How the hell can you speak of a sports event gathering so many spectators, staff, volunteers, nurses and doctors? Who could enjoy the Games in this situation?”
With overseas spectators already having been banned, organizers are suggesting they may be forced to ban fans entirely and stage what some are calling a “made-for-TV” Olympics.
On April 23, just three months before the scheduled Opening Ceremonies, Japan’s government declared a third state of emergency for Tokyo and several other regions as it battles a surge in infections that is being supercharged by the rapid spread of coronavirus variants and shows no sign of abating.
Japan’s caseload is still a fraction of what many countries are experiencing, but the death toll has doubled in just three months and crossed 10,000 this week. The daily rate of new infections approached 6,000, the highest level in three months. On the day the Olympics were postponed, March 24, 2020, Japan recorded just 65 new infections.
Pressed by reporters on why the Games were going ahead despite the emergency, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, “The IOC has the authority to decide, and the IOC has already decided to hold the Tokyo Olympics.”
On Wednesday, health minister Norihisa Tamura warned Olympic organizers they would have to “secure their own” hospital beds for anyone falling ill at the Games, explaining the government would not release beds set aside for Japanese covid-19 patients.
In parliament, Shigeru Omi, the government’s chief medical adviser and a man who seldom departs from the official line, said it was “now time to discuss and consider the potential strain the Olympics will have on the level of infection and Japan’s medical system.”
Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, was the first prominent Olympic official to sound alarms about the virus in February 2020, but in an interview this week he expressed confidence the Games would still go ahead this year.
“If you’re asking me right now if we’ll have a Games this July or not? I think the answer is yes,” Pound said. “They’ll be somewhat different, for sure.”
Despite public concerns in Japan, Pound said organizers have had months to prepare for the worst-case scenario. “Government and public health authorities are all basing their positions on the best science and data that’s available, as opposed to a broadly based public opinion poll,” he said.
Japan and the IOC have dropped the idea that the Games would signal “humanity’s victory over the coronavirus,” as they had proclaimed they would when announcing the postponement more than a year ago; they now stress the need for a “safe and secure” event with health as the “highest priority.”
Organizers will wait until June before deciding whether Japanese spectators will be admitted. But the idea of the Olympics taking place behind closed doors is being openly floated.
“If that situation arises, then we cannot have a Games with safety and security as the highest priority,” said Seiko Hashimoto, the organizing committee’s president. “Then there may be a time that we have to decide on holding the Games behind closed doors, with no spectators to the extent possible.”
The updated playbooks have tightened restrictions to minimize the risk of infection, including daily coronavirus tests for athletes and those in contact with them; bans on using public transportation; and instructions to eat only in designated locations. Unspecified penalties await for anyone who breaks the rules.
Vaccines will not be mandatory, but most athletes and officials probably will be vaccinated. Yet within Japan, just 3.2 million vaccine doses have been delivered, the equivalent of two shots for just 1.3 percent of the population, reflecting a combination of the country’s slow efforts to develop its own vaccine or source one from others and skepticism among many citizens about foreign drugs.
The Games organizers have asked the Japanese Nursing Association for 500 nurses to help out during the 17-day event. On social media, nurses soon began tweeting under the hashtag “nurses opposed to being dispatched to the Olympics,” arguing they had to prioritize existing patients. The hashtag attracted nearly 200,000 retweets within days.
Others have taken to the streets, asking why IOC officials will get regular testing for the coronavirus while many health workers still can’t access tests.
Nurse Konoka Shibata, 25, said it was “unreasonable” to expect nurses to volunteer for the Games, putting themselves at additional risk when many hospitals are short-staffed and struggling to cope with the pandemic. Kobe University’s Iwata said he also is concerned that delegations from Brazil and India could bring more dangerous variants to Japan.
IOC officials said they have switched to saliva tests for the coronavirus rather than the more complex PCR tests to lessen the burden on medical staff and argued that regular testing would reduce the risk of clusters of infections emerging.
The Games are scheduled to be held at the hottest time of the year, a fact that places an additional burden on health services as well as on tens of thousands of volunteers, who will have to wear masks but mostly won’t even get coronavirus tests.
While Tokyo is staging several test events to prepare for the Games, the pandemic has complicated Olympic qualifying across several sports and countries, with Canada postponing its swimming trials for a second time Wednesday.
Diving Australia pulled out of the World Cup set to be held Saturday to Thursday in Tokyo; the event serves as an Olympic qualifying event, meaning divers Anabelle Smith and Maddison Keeney were stripped of the chance to qualify for the Olympics in the synchronized three-meter springboard event. Seven Australian divers have qualified, but the country was hoping for up to five more places.
“To have our team’s opportunity to qualify in remaining events removed, due to decisions that oppose one of the very principles of Olympism ‘fair play,’ is truly devastating,” Smith wrote in an Instagram post.
Many athletes whose Olympic dreams were postponed last year are hopeful vaccines, testing and safety measures can help salvage the event this summer.
“This Olympics will certainly look different and feel different, but the heart and soul and essence of the movement is still pure, and it’s going to bring the world together, even if the fans largely aren’t there,” said Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time U.S. beach volleyball gold medalist trying for her sixth Olympics.
Robert Maes, a sports marketing expert in Tokyo with ties to several national Olympic committees and sponsors, argued that holding the Games this year would be a financial disaster for sponsors, who can’t entertain international clients, as well as for the Japanese tourism industry and economy.
Maes wants another postponement and brushes aside the argument that the Olympic Village has to be vacated for real estate developers to convert into apartments, arguing that athletes don’t have to be housed together next year but could be accommodated in hotels or training camps near competition venues.
Organizers insist postponement is impossible because it would be unfair to athletes and would complicate the global sporting calendar.
The Summer Olympics in Tokyo, originally scheduled for 2020, are being staged a year late because of the pandemic. But many restrictions are in place, including a ban on spectators from outside Japan.
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