As Japan counts down the final month before the Olympic torch relay kicks off its 121-day journey across the nation, myriad issues remain unresolved for the Tokyo Games.
The relay begins March 25 in Fukushima Prefecture, from where the Olympic flame will be carried by thousands of torchbearers through all 47 prefectures before reaching the capital, where the opening ceremony is scheduled for July 23.
But what’s normally a time of excitement and hope ahead of an Olympics will instead be held under the shadow of a pandemic and uncertainty surrounding the games.
Among the most pressing concerns are coronavirus countermeasures, the crucial dilemma of deciding how many spectators will be allowed to attend competitive events, the recruitment of volunteers and unpaid medical staff and the testing or vaccination of athletes from abroad.
And yet, the countdown continues.
On Thursday, the Tokyo Organising Committee released guidelines for COVID-19 measures that will be taken during the torch relay.
While several variables — namely border restrictions for foreign visitors, the vaccination of the general public and, of course, the state of the virus outbreak — fall under the purview of the central government or are simply unpredictable, organizers are focused on encouraging social distancing, preventing the gathering of large crowds, regular testing and health checks, and responding quickly and appropriately if infections are reported.
The state of the pandemic in each prefecture is unique and requires a localized and flexible approach, said Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto.
“Coronavirus countermeasures will be the top priority so the torch relay can be enjoyed safely and securely by as many people as possible,” she said during a news conference Thursday.
The relay itself entails a nationwide series of promotional events held mostly outdoors that would seem to pose a relatively small risk of spreading the virus, having been reduced and altered to prevent large crowds.
Organizers aren’t discouraging spectators from lining the route to show their support for the runners but urged them to practice social distancing. Torch runners and staff will be tested regularly — though it has yet to be decided when and how frequently — and celebrations and other events that were open to the public will have reduced attendance or require prior registration.
On Monday, Fukushima Prefecture’s torch relay committee announced it would move forward the start time to allow the torch to pass through each town and village more quickly. Participants will need to preregister to take part in the celebrations held at the finish line on each day of the race.
Whether spectators will be allowed at competitive events, and to what extent, remains a fundamental issue.
“The biggest question is the degree to which we can have live spectators,” said Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee’s executive board, in an interview earlier this week. “In the end, spectators are nice to have but not must haves.”
Whether attendance capacity is limited to 10% or 50%, Pound said, what’s most important is that necessary precautions are taken to prevent clusters of infections from occurring and to be prepared if they do. He added that organizers can probably wait until May or June to make that decision.
More than 1,000 volunteers quit in the fallout from sexist remarks made by then-Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori earlier this month, the organizing committee announced Wednesday.
About 80,000 “field staff” had been selected from more than 200,000 applicants to help with all manner of tasks — traffic safety, crowd control, athlete support and community outreach, among others — meant to streamline competitions and raise spirits during the games.
While those who have withdrawn account for less than 2% of all volunteers, it dealt a blow to organizational morale.
In addition, more than 10,000 nurses, doctors and other medical workers have been asked to provide unpaid assistance during the games, which would be difficult amid a pandemic. In principle, each medical worker will be asked to volunteer for five days but lawmakers said larger venues may require hundreds on any given day.
“Frankly, it would be difficult to cooperate with that request,” said Haruo Ozaki, president of the Tokyo Medical Association, during a news conference in early February, adding that holding the games with spectators from abroad would be “endlessly challenging.”
Testing, vaccinations and entry restrictions
According to the first edition, released in early February, of the organizing committee’s playbook — a draft compendium that lays out a framework of virus countermeasures that will be taken during the games — travelers from overseas will be required to test negative prior to leaving their country and provide a detailed itinerary of their first 14 days in Japan. They will also need permission from the organizing committee to use public transport.
Athletes will be tested every four days but will not have to receive a vaccine in order to compete.
While travel restrictions for foreign travelers and the vaccination of the general population are decided by the Japanese government, such decisions will strongly influence the shape and scale of the games.
Vaccination of the general public has already started later than in many other countries. Achieving herd immunity by the opening ceremony was always a pipe-dream, but it’s now becoming clear that even the millions of people age 65 and older in the country may not be fully vaccinated by then.
Experts say a failure to vaccinate a large portion of the population before the games will leave the door open for a major outbreak.
Vaccinations began for 40,000 essential workers on Feb. 17. They are due to receive their second dose of the Pfizer shot beginning March 10.
Vaccinations for older people will begin April 12, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Thursday. Earlier this week, however, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, said inoculations of older people will proceed at a slower pace than originally expected.
“I’m very skeptical of that schedule,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Public Health at King’s College London.
Achieving herd immunity or even vaccinating a large percentage of the general population prior to the start of the Olympics is out of the question, meaning public officials can only rely on preventive measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“The more we understand the current situation, the less confident I am with regards to the Olympics,” Shibuya said. “My hunch is that we should cancel it.”
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