March 20, 2021

Article at Washington Post

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Tokyo Olympics organizers ban spectators from outside Japan in pandemic-control measure

TOKYO — Overseas spectators will be barred from attending the Tokyo Summer Olympics in an attempt to lessen pandemic risks, the Games' organizing committee said Saturday.

“The fact that the spectators are not able to attend the Games from abroad, that is very disappointing, and it’s regrettable,” Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said at a news conference.

Tickets for the Tokyo Games were in high demand and mostly sold out when they hit the marketplace in 2019. Organizers had planned to make 7.8 million tickets available, at least 70 percent of them targeted to Japanese spectators.

Saturday’s decision affects not only fans, many of whom had purchased tickets nearly two years ago, but also the families and friends of athletes who had planned for years to cheer on loved ones at what is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Hashimoto said the decision stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic, including concern about overloading Japan’s medical system and the need to ensure the safety of participants and the public.

“It was an unavoidable decision,” she said, speaking after an online meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the Japanese government and the Tokyo government.

“The Tokyo 2020 Games will be completely different from the past, but the essence remains the same,” she said. “Athletes will put everything on the line and inspire people with their outstanding performances.”

The Games were postponed last year because of the pandemic and are now set to begin July 23. Opinion polls show a majority of Japanese say they should not go ahead in the summer.

Hashimoto had been keen to reach a decision on overseas spectators before the torch relay begins Thursday, with a ceremony that will exclude spectators. She said that entry to the country for foreigners in July could not be guaranteed and that it was important the issue be decided now to give people clarity on travel plans.

Japan has allowed limited numbers of spectators to attend sporting events during the pandemic, albeit with bans on cheering, shouting, singing and drinking alcohol.

Hashimoto said about 600,000 tickets for the Olympics and 30,000 for the Paralympics had been sold to overseas spectators. She said provision would be made for relatives of competitors so they could “connect” with athletes during the Games, even though they cannot attend in person.

IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement that he was “truly sorry” that fans across the world will not be able to watch the Olympics in person.

“We know that this is a great sacrifice for everybody. We have said from the very beginning of this pandemic that it will require sacrifices. But we have also said that the first principle is safety,” Bach said. “I know that our Japanese partners and friends did not reach this conclusion lightly.”

The decision on spectators also covers the Paralympic Games, which are scheduled to run from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5 in Tokyo, using many of the same venues and resources.

“In an ideal world we would prefer to have international spectators at the Games, allowing families, friends and fans to cheer on their loved ones and all athletes,” Andrew Parsons, IPC president, said in a statement. “But at the moment we must acknowledge that due to the global pandemic we are not living in an ideal world.”

A spokesman for CoSport, the world’s largest Olympics ticket provider, which had been authorized to sell tickets in eight countries including the United States, said the firm is “disappointed.”

“Unfortunately, the Japanese government’s decision is yet another letdown, but we all have to understand their concerns about everyone’s health and safety,” the spokesman said.

The refund process is likely to be complicated because the IOC must sign off on it, and then Tokyo 2020 organizers will have to refund ticket providers around the world.

In a letter to American athletes, Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, expressed disappointment but added, “We acknowledge the complex nature of event hosting in the current, COVID-impacted global environment.”

“The grief, frustration and disappointment being felt by all whose plans have been ruined is understandable,” she wrote. “We can only try to imagine the weight of the responsibility felt by the hosts — along with the IOC and IPC — to offer the participants and the host community the safest possible environment, and we acknowledge that safety has to be the priority.”

The IOC is strongly encouraging athletes, coaches and officials to get vaccinated before coming to Japan and has accepted an offer from China to supply vaccine doses to Olympic delegations in need of them. For each vaccination supplied to a participant, the IOC will pay for two more doses for ordinary people in the athlete’s country.

While athletes can largely be confined in training camps and the Olympic Village, the prospect of a horde of foreign spectators wandering around Tokyo had scared many here.

In its first “playbook” for the Tokyo Games, issued last month, the IOC said participants will be tested before departure and on arrival and are expected to avoid social interaction when possible and steer clear of public transport. Spectators will be allowed to clap but asked not to cheer or shout to avoid spreading virus particles.

Hopes that Japan would have vaccinated enough of its people to allow a relatively normal event this year have been dashed by the slow rollout of inoculations here.

The government now says it hopes to secure 100 million coronavirus vaccine doses by summer, enough to cover some 5 million health workers and 38 million people over 65 but leaving most of the country’s population of 126 million unprotected.