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Spectators shut out as sporting events respond to COVID-19 threat across Asia

Kyodo, AP

Spectators hoping to attend major events in Japan are increasingly having to change their plans as the coronavirus crisis forces organizers to shut the doors to the public.

On Thursday, the Japan Racing Association decided that all central government-sanctioned horse races will go ahead but will be run at empty race tracks for the foreseeable future.

JRA races are primarily held on Saturdays and Sundays and the change is effective this weekend.

JRA races, none Grade-1, between Saturday and March 15 will take place at Nakayama, Chukyo and Hanshin racecourses.

Also, horse races held on and after Thursday at local government-operated tracks in Oi, Nagoya, Kochi, Saga and Banei Tokachi will also be held without spectators.

The World Health Organization said countries should be “in a phase of preparedness for a potential pandemic.”

The coronavirus death toll is continuing to rise in mainland China and other countries, having claimed over 2,700 lives and infected more than 81,000 people as of Thursday. The total infections in Japan stand at 894, including the 705 passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with seven virus-linked deaths.

Among other developments, starting Thursday, the Japan Keirin Autorace Foundation will not admit any fans into venues hosting keirin cycling or speedway motorcycle races and has set no timetable for when normal operations will resume.

Powerboat racing, known as kyotei, will also be held without crowds between Friday and March 15.

Wagers on horse racing, keirin racing, speedway motorcycle racing and powerboat racing — the four sports on which betting is legal in Japan — can only be placed via the internet or telephone. Ticket windows will be closed.

Super Rugby is considering relocating the Sunwolves game against the Brumbies scheduled for March 8 at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, the sport’s governing body in the Southern Hemisphere said.

World Skate announced the postponement of the April 13-19 International Skateboarding Open in Yancheng, China. The street and park events are 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games qualifiers.

The effects of the virus is being felt across Asia.

The three biggest soccer leagues in Asia, the Chinese Super League, K-League and J. League, have gone into recess, as the governments of China, South Korea and Japan try to contain the fallout of the rapidly spreading virus. The surge of postponements of sports events has spread from China, where the outbreak started, to South Korea and Japan.

Meanwhile, NPB announced Wednesday that it will play its 72 remaining preseason games in empty stadiums because of the threat of the spreading coronavirus. The regular season is to open on March 20.

The Hong Kong Sevens, the annual highlight of the rugby sevens global competition, has been pushed back to later in the year. Major events in China including the Formula One Grand Prix and the World Athletics Indoor Championships were among the first to be postponed.

The staging of the Tokyo Olympics remain in limbo because of the virus. On Thursday, five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Ian Thorpe said Australia’s athletes should consider their long-term health before deciding to compete in Japan in July.

“I would most definitely be concerned,” said Thorpe, who still has a profile in Japan long after retiring from competitive swimming. “What we need . . . is to use some of the best expert disease specialists to find out what is the risk to the team. What is the risk to the other nations and how can we have an Olympic Games, one that is safe, that doesn’t put athletes at risk?”

Thorpe’s comments come a day after International Olympic Committee veteran Dick Pound warned the Tokyo Games could be canceled due to the coronavirus.

Pound told The Associated Press that any decision on whether the Olympics can proceed could be put off until late May.

“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’ ” Pound said.

If the IOC decided the Games can’t go ahead as scheduled “you’re probably looking at a cancellation”, he said.

Thorpe said “the decision should come down to each individual athlete. But whether or not they want to compete, that they should take their health into consideration first.”

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