What are the odds that a fan attending the upcoming Tokyo Games will be found to have been infected with the novel coronavirus?

They could be as low as one in a million, if data from Japan’s top professional sports leagues is any indication — offering hope to Olympic organizers faced with the monumental task of delivering the world’s biggest sporting event in the pandemic era.

With officials on Saturday announcing a ban on overseas attendees — a first in the event’s history — and local media reports suggesting that venues could be restricted to 50% capacity to allow for physical distancing, attention will now turn to whether local fans allowed to attend the Olympics will be at risk of infection.

It’s a problem organizers were eager to avoid when the event was postponed in March 2020. Then, officials hoped that the one-year delay would allow for the pandemic to subside and for tens of thousands of sports fans from around the world to descend upon Tokyo in what International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach described would be “a celebration of humanity.”

Instead, with the virus far from contained and the progress of vaccinations varying wildly from country to country, what Bach called “the light at the end of the tunnel” just weeks ago will instead be yet another waypoint on the long and bumpy road to normality.

Despite the many logistical challenges that remain between now and the Sept. 8 closing ceremony of the Paralympics, Japan’s experience as one of the few countries in the world to consistently hold large, ticketed sporting events “with COVID-19” offers evidence that the games can indeed go on — even if the atmosphere is unlike that of any previous Olympics.

Few infections found

The litany of restrictions organizers say will be placed on fans — including bans on cheering and singing — are sure to come as a surprise to anyone who has attended a major sporting event in the pre-pandemic era. But many of the guidelines in the Tokyo 2020 “playbook,” first released in early February, are based on rules that have governed sports fans since the country’s professional leagues resumed play in June.

Those rules, which were largely developed based on recommendations by a task force formed by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and pro soccer’s J. League, sought to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infections while still getting fans back into the stands, even if they are only allowed to applaud when their team scores a goal or hits a home run.

Songs, chants and flag-waving have been prohibited across Japanese sports in an effort to reduce the spread of airborne particles carrying the virus, while alcohol sales were restricted at J. League games until October to reduce congestion in concourses and dissuade fans from spending longer periods of time with their masks removed.

The J. League monitored carbon dioxide levels and used facial recognition cameras to measure the use of masks during Jan. 4's Levain Cup final at Tokyo's National Stadium. | KYODO
The J. League monitored carbon dioxide levels and used facial recognition cameras to measure the use of masks during Jan. 4’s Levain Cup final at Tokyo’s National Stadium. | KYODO

“Since we started welcoming fans back last year, we have observed that they have continued to follow our coronavirus prevention rules,” said J. League spokesperson Yu Iwasaka. “Our clubs have not reported any increase in incidents of fans violating those guidelines since alcohol sales resumed.”

While spectators have yet to return in large numbers for many top sports leagues around the world, Japanese sports experienced relatively few contests without fans following a national state of emergency in April and May last year that forced the J. League to suspend play for four months and NPB to delay its season by three.

After briefly holding games behind closed doors (dubbed “remote matches” by the Japan Top League Alliance, which includes 12 of the country’s top sports leagues), the two circuits reopened stadium gates from July 10 — at first capping attendance to either 5,000 fans or 50% of a stadium’s capacity, whatever figure happened to be lower, before raising attendance limits to 50% over the course of the fall.

Just nine infected fans were discovered to have attended the 1,611 regular-season games held by both leagues — five in NPB and four in the J. League’s second division — while the J. League’s top flight managed 279 games without incident.

Even more promisingly, seven well-attended fixtures played at the end of the season — baseball’s Climax Series and Japan Series as well as the final of the Levain Cup — reported just one infection in total, and the feared nightmare scenario of traveling fans causing cluster outbreaks never materialized.

An average of over 18,000 fans attended the six games of baseball's PL Climax Series and Japan Series in November. | KYODO
An average of over 18,000 fans attended the six games of baseball’s PL Climax Series and Japan Series in November. | KYODO

Those numbers are not without caveats: Japan has come under criticism for its reluctance to test and trace as aggressively as other countries, and there are almost certainly asymptomatic cases that have escaped detection.

Even so, the number of infected fans discovered at pro sporting events in Japan still pales in comparison to February’s Super Bowl, which Florida health officials determined was associated with 57 cases at official events alone.

Fans adjusting to measures

An Olympics without overseas fans will stand in stark contrast to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, when Japan hosted tens of thousands of rugby fans from around the world over six weeks. Faced with the grim reality of the first-ever Olympics held under such circumstances, some fans — especially those who missed out during 2019’s infamously competitive ticket lotteries — see a potential bright side.

“If overseas fans won’t come, hopefully, some of the tickets will be redistributed to Japan,” Tokyo resident and salaryman Satoshi Takahashi, 35, said. “But it would probably feel a lot different without the foreign fans, and it might feel less like the Olympics.”

Takahashi was one of a combined 8,339 who attended the final four of basketball’s Emperor’s Cup on March 12-13 at Saitama Super Arena. All tickets to the venue, which will host the Olympic basketball competition, were issued digitally. Concession stands sold only soft drinks, while fans were only allowed to clap using their hands and paper fans.

Such countermeasures have been considered a success by the B. League, which was forced to call off its 2019-20 campaign in March 2020 and not declare a champion after the pandemic hampered its ability to safely hold games. While B. League and Emperor’s Cup games have been overseen by the league and the Japan Basketball Association, respectively, venue management for the Olympics will be controlled by the Japanese Olympic Committee.

A league official said that there have been no cases of fan-to-fan transmission at any arenas since the start of the 2020-21 season, although a handful of fans who attended games were later found to have already been infected with the virus.

“Obviously, it’s not the same circumstances for fans either, but at the same time, people have been used to this,” Takahashi said. “I actually feel thankful that I have been able to watch these basketball games in person because there are things you can’t experience unless you come to the arena.”

J. League touts experience

The Levain Cup final in particular, held with a crowd of 24,219 at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Jan. 4, provided data they hope will allow competitions to let more fans into stadiums, even before herd immunity is achieved through vaccinations.

The study by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology — which also examined four other J. League games of varying sizes — found that carbon dioxide levels in the stands rarely exceeded 700 parts per million, well below recommended levels of 1,000 ppm. CO2 levels in concourses were similar, although readings spiked as high as 2,500 ppm in some bathrooms ahead of kickoff.

Fans at Japanese stadiums must have their temperatures checked with thermographic cameras before entering. | KYODO
Fans at Japanese stadiums must have their temperatures checked with thermographic cameras before entering. | KYODO

Facial recognition cameras at the stadium detected that over 90% of fans wore masks. According to Iwasaka, the remainder were either young children or adults who had temporarily removed their masks to eat or drink.

“We believe that with scientific evidence and the experience of holding over 1,000 games with coronavirus prevention measures, it’s possible to run simulations and show that we can hold events above 50% of venue capacity,” Iwasaka said. “It will be important to have a model showing the decrease in risk created by combining countermeasures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, staggered entrance and exit times and the progress of inoculations.”

Of greater concern to the general public could be what happens after each day’s events wrap up.

According to an NTT Docomo study conducted at the Emperor’s Cup and Levain Cup finals, around 35% of fans chose to stay out rather than return directly home. Should that number increase significantly during the Olympics, pressure will be on officials to ensure that safety precautions are followed at restaurants and bars near competition venues — a difficult request for businesses that had expected a significant financial windfall from the games.

“The Japanese sports industry has accumulated a wealth of experience in planning for every sort of climate and condition, including response plans for the coronavirus, extreme heat, inclement weather and natural disaster,” Iwasaka said. “We hope that an ‘All Japan’ effort can put this knowledge to use in order to realize a safe and secure Olympics.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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