• AFP-JIJI, JIJI, Kyodo, Staff Report

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People in Japan reacted with bitter disappointment Tuesday at news the Olympic Games the nation was set to host had been postponed after years of preparations, but many said they understood the move in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even shortly after the announcement Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing thronged with late-night crowds of young people, with Japan not having been subject to the same restrictions on movement imposed by much of the rest of the world.

Earlier in the day in a joint statement, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the games, initially scheduled to start on July 24 this year, will now take place “not later than summer 2021.”

At Shibuya crossing, Momoko Doku, an IT engineer, stressed that the health of the athletes should take priority. “It is disappointing for sure, but when you think about the health of athletes as well as spectators, I understand,” he said. “The new coronavirus is spreading so fast in the world, and this is a very serious issue internationally.”

With only four months to go until the Opening Ceremony was due to begin, the capital was already decked with posters and fliers, and tickets had been oversubscribed by residents.

But opinion polls in the past week had shown a growing sentiment that the Games could not be held, as the world grappled with a virus that has killed more than 18,000 people and put a third of the world on lockdown. Tokyo has seen the number of case reports increase over the past few days and, according to Kyodo News, the capital saw 40 or more new cases on Wednesday — a record number for a single day that exceeds the previous record of 17 on Tuesday.

For Shunsuke Kitamoto, who boxes at his local university club, the disappointment of the delay to the games was all the more crushing; he had planned to be one of tens of thousands of volunteers to guide fans from all over the world around the megacity. “I was very much looking forward to seeing matches and being part of the games as a volunteer. So it is disappointing,” Kitamoto said.

However, he recognized as a silver lining the fact that the games were being postponed rather than scrapped altogether — a possibility many had feared.

Sachie Tojo said the news had come as a “real surprise” and that it was “disappointing as a Tokyo citizen because I was really looking forward to it.”

But he, too, said the welfare of athletes was paramount. “I also want the games to be hosted in a good environment for athletes, so I understand,” he added.

Kenji Tsujimura, a 26-year-old office worker from Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, who was visiting Odaiba Marine Park in the capital’s Minato Ward with his girlfriend, called the decision “wise,” but added: “I want them to show why they opted to put off the Olympics by about one year.” He noted that Japan would likely be subject to international criticism if the games were postponed again.

Volunteers for the Paralympic Games, meanwhile, said the postponement would provide extra time to prepare barrier-free access to venues and transportation.

“I’m relieved,” said Eriko Kawahata, a 54-year-old Tokyo resident in a wheelchair who planned to support the events as a volunteer. The spread of the new coronavirus has raised health concerns for people with disabilities, she said.

“I was afraid myself and other athletes with disabilities would have more severe symptoms if we got infected,” Kawahata said. “I hope the games will be held in a way that allows athletes and staff to give their fullest without worry.”

Masayoshi Imanishi, an official at Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International, also voiced hope that the additional time could alleviate lingering concerns. “We hope further improvements will be made at facilities, public transportation and venues by reflecting more opinions of Paralympic athletes and other people with disabilities,” he said.

Organizers will also need to make preparations to secure some 80,000 volunteers all over again. “Depending on the new dates, I may not be able to participate,” said Misaki Kon, a 19-year-old university student in Kanagawa Prefecture who planned to participate as a volunteer. “It’s disappointing that my summer plans are now completely gone.”

Ticket holders, meanwhile, are worried. “Will my tickets become completely useless or will I have some kind of priority rights?” said a 43-year-old woman in Saitama Prefecture who had secured tickets for basketball and soccer matches at a venue close to her home.

Quoting an official with the games, the Asahi Shimbun daily reported earlier this month that, according to the organizing committee’s terms and conditions of ticket purchase, a cancellation would mean no refund. However, what happens now that they have been postponed remains unclear.

On the organizers’ decision to maintain the “Tokyo 2020” brand even though the event will be held in 2021, a 39-year-old woman said she called it a “good thing” if it can avoid further spending.

But some questioned the timing of the postponement decision and whether it is still worth hosting the games at all. “The costs of the Tokyo Olympics have already grown massively from what was planned, and a postponement spells even more,” said Nobuhiko Okano, a 47-year-old dentist. “The Olympics itself is exciting, but I question whether we should still hold (the event).”

A 65-year-old man taking a walk near Yokohama Stadium, where baseball and softball games are scheduled to be held, said, “The decision should have been made earlier, in view of preparations made by athletes and spectators coming from far away.”

“I am happy I will be able to see a second Tokyo Olympics, but the upcoming event will be tough (to host) given that additional costs will emerge,” he added.

The Olympics has experienced boycotts, terrorist attacks and protests but has been held every four years since 1948. The games are now the highest-profile event affected by the virus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has forced the postponement or cancellation of sports competitions worldwide.

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