Overseas fans will be banned from this summer's virus-delayed Tokyo Olympics, organizers said Saturday, calling the decision disappointing but "unavoidable" as they try to hold the games safely during the pandemic.
The unprecedented ban will make the Tokyo Games the first ever without overseas spectators, with organizers scaling back their ambitions for the pandemic event.
Once billed as a party to celebrate "proof of humanity's triumph over the virus," the games are instead shaping up to be a largely television event, with little of the international party atmosphere that usually characterizes an Olympics.
In a statement issued after talks between local organizers, Japanese officials and Olympic and Paralympic chiefs, games officials said the virus situation in Japan and abroad remained "very challenging."
They said it was "highly unlikely" Japan could guarantee overseas visitors entry by the summer, and therefore the ban on spectators from abroad was necessary.
Before the meeting, the Japanese government had already concluded that allowing overseas spectators for the games is not feasible, given that the threat from the virus is far from over and fears that foreign nationals could bring more contagious variants detected in many countries.
Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto admitted the decision had not been easy.
"I myself was an athlete. I had the pleasure of participating in the Olympics a number of times. So the fact that spectators are not able to attend the games from abroad is very disappointing," she said.
But, she added: "We have to ensure a safe and secure environment for all the participants. It was an unavoidable decision."
In a statement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Paralympic Committee voiced their disappointment at the ban, but said they "fully respected and accepted" the decision.
The U.S. Olympic team called the decision "news we hoped would never come", adding in a statement that it would "continue to advocate for opportunities for American fans to experience the games in person."
Organizers had planned to sell 630,000 tickets for the Olympics and Paralympics to overseas fans, but that has looked increasingly unrealistic in recent weeks. Instead, the Tokyo organizing committee said it will refund the purchasers of roughly 600,000 Olympic tickets and 30,000 Paralympic tickets already sold outside Japan.
Leaks ahead of the talks made clear organizers were leaning against allowing fans from abroad, and IOC chief Thomas Bach set the stage earlier Saturday, warning "difficult decisions" would be necessary to ensure safety.
The IOC has reportedly sought limited exemptions for some overseas guests, but the rules are likely to be strict.
Hashimoto admitted last week it will be "difficult" for even the families of foreign athletes to attend.
In a related development, the Japanese organizers have determined that people living overseas will not be allowed to volunteer at the games in principle as part of precautions against the spread of the COVID-19, officials with knowledge of the plan said on condition of anonymity.
About 10% of the roughly 80,000 games volunteers were foreign nationals, the organizing committee said before the games were pushed back one year ago.
The government will consider ways to permit the entry of volunteers from abroad whose roles are difficult to be replaced by somebody living in Japan, such as those who are capable of speaking minority languages.
Ultimately, just how many domestic spectators will be in venues this summer has yet to be decided.
Organizers originally suggested they would rule on that by April, but Bach has said the decision could be pushed closer to the July 23 opening ceremony.
According to several officials with the knowledge of the planning, the Japanese organizers are now considering admitting up to 50% of venue capacity.
Whatever they decide, there's no doubt that barring overseas fans will help make the games a very different event from years past.
"It has never happened that foreign spectators were banned from entering the host country at the time of the Games, even during the Spanish flu at the time of the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games," said Jean-Loup Chappelet, a Lausanne-based professor who specializes in the Olympics.
"Even for Athens 1896, the Cook agency organized 'packages' for those who wanted to attend the first modern games."
When the games were postponed last year, organizers and Japanese officials had hoped that the pandemic would be receding by spring 2021.
They proclaimed the event would mark the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and a celebration of the end of a global crisis.
But even with vaccines rolling out in much of the world, the virus continues to cause havoc, and the narrative from Olympic officials looks to be changing.
The torch relay kicks off this week, with spectators barred from the launch ceremony and those lining the route asked to avoid cheering.
In a recent interview, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto acknowledged that the virus situation in the Japanese capital remained "extremely serious" and said the games offered "solidarity" during a difficult time.
Japan's public remains skeptical about the safety of the event, with a majority opposed to holding it this year and favoring either cancellation or further postponement.
But organizers and Olympic officials have said neither of those are options, and they have put together virus rule books they say will ensure the games are safe regardless of the pandemic.
Hashimoto said the games would still have much to offer.
"The Tokyo 2020 Games will be completely different from the past, but the essence remains the same, athletes will put everything on the line, and inspire people with their outstanding performances," she said.
The yearlong delay and virus safety countermeasures have helped balloon Tokyo 2020's already mammoth budget to an eye-watering ¥1.64 trillion ($15 billion), making the games potentially the most expensive Summer Olympics in history.
And Muto said it was "very clear" that barring overseas fans would affect organizers' bottom line, though the final impact won't be clear until limits on domestic spectators are decided.
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