Voices around Japan questioning the wisdom of pushing ahead with the Tokyo Olympics during a pandemic have grown louder in recent weeks as the nation experiences a surge in infections.
Several areas are under a state of emergency that will last until the end of May and recent polls suggest public sentiment is against hosting the event as scheduled.
As anti-Olympic protesters gathered for a demonstration near Tokyo’s National Stadium on Sunday, where an athletics test event was being held, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe was resolute that the show must go on in July.
“Why should the Olympics take place? Because they are the premier sporting event in a four-year cycle,” Coe said. “They are very much more than a sporting event.
“Having spent seven years as the chair of the organizing committee in London (for the 2012 Games), I know that the impact that those games have had on particularly hard-pressed communities in East London has been profound. The legacies are manifest.
“I think that it also will act as a beacon of hope and optimism in a world that I hope is soon moving back to some type of normalcy. That will take time and I think sport is a great bridgehead. I can’t think of any other activity that has the ability to pull communities in differences of ethnicities, of belief, of geography and boundary together in the way that a major sporting event can.”
Tokyo reported 1,032 new COVID-19 infections on Sunday, the second straight day the numbers topped 1,000 in the Olympic host city. Saturday’s total was 1,121, the highest on a single day since Jan. 22.
This comes with thousands of athletes, staff and media set to arrive for the games, which begin July 23.
Public opposition to the games remains high.
“We are very empathetic to the need to be fully recognizing that communities around the world are inevitably nervous about many things related to COVID,” Coe said. “What I would say though, as president of World Athletics, as respectfully as I can, is that we take those concerns very, very seriously.
“The COVID protocols, particularly that world athletics have developed — over the last year and a half by our health and science teams who are extremely good at this — have consistently helped deliver events in a safe and secure environment.”
Coe was in Sapporo for a marathon test event on Wednesday and praised organizers for the way the race was run and the virus protocols that were in place.
The former middle-distance runner thinks similar success can be achieved during the Olympics.
“I recognize nine athletes (from outside Japan) coming for a test event in Sapporo is very different from thousands of competitors coming to this city over the course of the summer months,” he said.
“Sport does understand those concerns. And it should if it doesn’t. We really will adhere in our protocols very, very clearly. There’s not an athletics federation that will be coming here that doesn’t understand the importance of following the rules and the regulations that we ourselves have laid down in conjunction with your local and public health authorities.”
While most of the Japanese public will likely be unvaccinated when the games begin, many Olympians will have received a vaccine. On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee announced a deal with Pfizer Inc. to provide doses to those participating in the Olympics, leading to accusations of athletes’ health being prioritized over that of the general public.
Coe encouraged any athlete who could be vaccinated to do so, though he agreed that not making it mandatory was the right decision.
“Whether it’s a matter of prioritizing the athletes, I think that’s very much an individual country by country decision,” Coe said. “But I do also think that domestic populations are keen, If sport is the bridgehead, then domestic populations I think on balance, are keen to see their competitors in that environment and maybe just help with that optimism and that hope over the summer months.
“So it’s a finely tuned balance. I accept that.”
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