Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to shift his messaging on the Tokyo Olympics, in a sign he may have accepted that the deadly coronavirus will make it necessary to postpone the event planned to start in July.
Abe and his Cabinet, as well as the organizers and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, had until days ago been unanimous in insisting the games would be staged as scheduled. But, following a Group of Seven leaders’ video conference on the coronavirus Monday, Abe avoided commenting on the timing of the event.
“I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics in their complete form, as proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus, and I gained support for that from the G7 leaders,” he told reporters after the event.
Sporting events around the globe have been called off, delayed or held without spectators because of the virus, raising questions on whether it would be safe to bring hundreds of thousands of athletes, officials and spectators together in Tokyo. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested the Tokyo Olympics should be pushed back a year.
Asked whether the timing of the event was discussed, Abe repeated the same phrases without answering directly. He also used similar words when asked about the issue in the Diet on Monday.
Abe’s comments come after a poll showed almost two-thirds of Japanese voters thought the Olympics should be postponed due to the pandemic. Abe has been closely associated with Tokyo hosting the games — flying to Buenos Aires in 2013 to make the case for Japan’s bid in person and appearing at the closing ceremony for the Rio Olympics four years ago dressed as Super Mario to promote Tokyo 2020.
“The politics of delaying the games have shifted. In the early days of the crisis, delaying would have been an admission that Abe had failed to manage it,” Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst for Teneo Intelligence in Washington, wrote on Twitter. “Now that it’s a global crisis, delaying may be what’s necessary to defend the Japanese people.”
With a growing number of qualifying events already canceled, the summer start date is looking increasingly impracticable. Tokyo organizers are asking that spectators stay away from Japan’s torch relay beginning at the end of the month, Kyodo News reported, an event usually expected to drum up excitement for the games.
Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto later denied that Abe’s comments meant any delay to the event.
“Holding it in its complete form means preparing properly to hold it as planned, and working together to that end,” she said Tuesday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also said there was no change to Japan’s preparations.
The French Olympic committee chief was reported as saying earlier that the virus must be on the wane by late May to allow the Tokyo Games to take place in July.
In response, Hashimoto reiterated that the International Olympic Committee had the authority to make the decision.
“I am aware of various individual opinions, but the government’s position is to provide support in close cooperation with the IOC, the organizing committee and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government,” she said.
The IOC is set to hold emergency talks later Tuesday as doubts grow over the feasibility of holding the games as planned.
The Olympic Games haven’t been canceled since the summer of 1944, when they were called off due to World War II.