Less than 100 days remain until the opening ceremony of the postponed Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which have been marred for months by waning public support and a surging pandemic.
Organizers tried to strike a positive note during a celebration to mark the occasion Wednesday, espousing steadfast optimism even as new virus countermeasures are imposed in a growing list of prefectures as a fourth wave of the pandemic takes hold.
Uncertainty shrouds details of how the games will be held, if at all, but one thing remains clear: The virus is spreading at a quickening pace.
“Frankly, it feels like every day we continue to see heartbreaking news, but our athletes continue to train tirelessly in spite of that,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters Wednesday. “Preparations are moving forward to host the games safely and securely.”
Tokyo reported 591 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, its highest daily count in more than two months.
Polls have shown that public support for proceeding with the games as planned is declining.
Nearly 70% of people believe the games should be postponed again or canceled altogether, according to a poll of 1,500 households released by the Asahi Shimbun on Monday. More than 90% of respondents said in-person spectators should be reduced or banned completely.
Countless controversial issues regarding restrictions on spectator attendance and the possible priority vaccination of competing athletes, among others, remain undecided.
“If (spectator capacity) is capped at 50%, we can take sufficient precautions,” Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said Tuesday during an interview with the Nikkei, adding that organizers will hold a meeting as early as the end of April to decide the matter.
But experts warn that even if no spectators are allowed at the games, it would still be dangerous to hold them if COVID-19 continues to run rampant.
“If the virus spreads any further, athletes visiting from countries around the world would make hosting the games difficult even if there are no spectators,” said Haruo Ozaki, president of the Tokyo Medical Association, during a news conference Tuesday. “If variants spread abruptly or the vaccination process suffers further delays, front-line workers will need to focus on treating virus patients.”
The Olympic torch relay — which began March 25 and is supposed to traverse all 47 prefectures before reaching Tokyo in late July to kick off the opening ceremony — is already running into issues.
The section of the relay passing through Osaka Prefecture was moved off public roads and into a park after an uptick in COVID-19 cases forced Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura to impose a fresh set of countermeasures, including restrictions on local dining establishments and calling on residents to stay indoors and avoid travel.
These restrictions will be enforced in parts of Osaka, Miyagi and Hyogo prefectures until May 5 and in parts of Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa until May 11.
According to media reports, the central government is weighing whether to expand those measures to Aichi, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.
The resurgence is beginning to impact athletic competitions as well.
FINA, the governing body for Olympic swimming, announced in March that a number of qualifying events for the Tokyo Games would be canceled due to the coronavirus.
Days later, however, the Tokyo Organizing Committee reversed the decision, announcing the events had been rescheduled or relocated.
The country aims to inoculate more than 36 million people age 65 and older by the end of June — after which the general population will begin to receive shots — but it’s unclear if that deadline will be met or how effective existing vaccines are against new variants that are more transmissible, harder to detect and possibly more fatal. Vaccines for older people started Monday.
Since Tuesday, about 2,700 elderly people have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, a low figure that has critics wondering whether Japan can vaccinate its most vulnerable in time for the opening of the Tokyo Games on July 23.
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