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The Japanese government is likely to recommend extending a state of emergency that includes Tokyo and other major cities as it tries to rein in coronavirus infections ahead of the Olympics. Photo: Bloomberg

Tokyo Olympics: with eight weeks to the Games, is Japan delaying day of reckoning amid torrent of warnings?

  • The bad news continues: Japan is still racing to control Covid-19, medical experts say the Games could give rise to an ‘Olympic strain’ and athletes have reservations about travel or are threatening to pull out 
  • There are also rumours of a boycott by South Korea over a territorial dispute. Assurances by the IOC that the Games will be safe have not calmed fears
Japan on Friday marked exactly eight weeks until the July 23 opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games, but the countdown to the largest sporting event in the nation’s history continues to be marred by a torrent of bad news.
Amid rumours of a boycott by South Korea over a territorial dispute, increasingly dire warnings about the Covid-19 pandemic from medical experts, and growing concerns among athletes due to travel to Tokyo, the Japanese government on Friday evening extended a state of emergency for the capital and eight other prefectures.

The present state of emergency is due to expire on Monday, but infection rates have not come down as much as health authorities had hoped and a panel of experts on Friday recommended an extension of the restrictions. The new state of emergency will run until June 20.

Asahi newspaper, official Tokyo Olympics partner, calls for Games to be cancelled

“In Osaka and Tokyo, the flow of people is starting to creep up and there are concerns that infections will rise,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, the economy minister who has also been put in charge of the government’s response to the pandemic, said at the start of the experts’ meeting.

There were 735,302 Covid-19 cases reported in Japan as of Friday, with 12,691 related deaths.

A number of medical experts have in recent days warned against going ahead with the Games.


Dr Naoto Ueyama, chairman of the Japan Doctors’ Union, on Thursday told a press conference the government had underestimated the risks associated with bringing tens of thousands of athletes, support staff and International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials into the country.


Are the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics going ahead?

Are the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics going ahead?

“Since the emergence of Covid-19, there has not been such a dangerous gathering of people coming together in one place from so many different places around the world,” he said.

“We cannot deny the possibility of even a new strain of the virus potentially emerging,” Ueyama said, adding that such an event would “be a huge tragedy and something that would be the target of criticism, even for 100 years”.

That message was echoed by Haruo Ozaki, the head of the Tokyo Medical Association, who said new case numbers needed to be brought down to 100 a day for the Games to go ahead safely, otherwise “there will be a major rebound in new cases in July and August, when the Olympics are to be held”.

US athletes likely to be in safest position to travel to Tokyo Olympics, expert says

Experts’ concerns have also been elevated as the Covid-19 variant first identified in India is steadily spreading in Japan. Despite enhanced quarantine measures at airports, where 160 cases were identified, at least 29 cases of the B. 1.617 variant had been confirmed in Tokyo, Osaka and the prefectures of Hyogo, Chiba and Shizuoka as of this week.


There is also a fear that some cases may have slipped through the net at airports, a concern borne out by several cases among people who had not travelled overseas and had not come into contact with anyone known to be infected.

As a precaution, the governor of Chiba, to the east of Tokyo, announced that he was cancelling the planned Olympic torch relay through the prefecture, which was due to start on July 1. A number of prefectures have altered the route of the relay to avoid busy districts, but Governor Toshihito Kumagai said he was acting “in the best interests of local residents’ safety and security”.

Dr Naoto Ueyama, chairman of the Japan Doctors’ Union, on Thursday told a press conference the government had underestimated the risks associated with holding the Olympics. Photo: AP

Comments by IOC officials appearing to dismiss Japanese concerns have sparked outrage on social media, including IOC President Thomas Bach telling an International Athletes Forum on Thursday: “Come with full confidence to Tokyo and get ready.”


“I want to say ‘shut up’,” said one Twitter user. “Let’s beat up on the IOC, which denigrates Japan, and halt these crazy Olympics.”

IOC officials have in recent days reiterated that measures are being taken to ensure the well-being of athletes and officials travelling to Tokyo. However, they are also facing scrutiny over a clause in the entry forms – which all athletes must sign before taking part in Olympics events – stipulating that the organisers of the Games are not liable for any coronavirus issues that might affect individuals while they are in Japan, and attendance is at their own risk.

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The committee’s chief operating officer Lana Haddad, speaking from the Swiss city of Lausanne during an online conference on Thursday, said the additional clause “is really to provide transparency and ensure informed consent” from participants.


“The entry forms are consistent with the standard practice of all other big event organisers and the forms are within the framework of the law, if I may add,” she said.

Novak Djokovic, the world No 1 tennis player, has given organisers another headache by declaring that he will reconsider his plans to take part in the Games if spectators are not permitted to attend matches.

Comments by IOC officials appearing to dismiss Japanese concerns have sparked outrage on social media. Photo: DPA

International spectators will not be allowed for the Games but some 90,000 people including athletes and their delegations will be coming. No decision has been made yet on domestic fans.


Several other tennis players – including Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, and home-grown stars Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori – have also expressed reservations about playing in Tokyo.

Domestic politicians are also beginning to speak out against the Olympics, with Kazuo Shii, the leader of the Japanese Communist Party, on Thursday accusing the IOC of treating Japan “like a colony.”

Responding to recent declarations by members of the IOC that the Games will go ahead even if the state of emergency is still in place, Shii called for the government to immediately cancel the Games, and said: “It is unforgivable for the IOC to place priority on holding the Games over the lives of Japanese citizens. The ‘IOC Empire’ treats Japan as a colony and violates our sovereignty.”

Japan cuts size of foreign Olympics delegations as opposition to Games grows

The health implications of the Olympics are not the only issue to be causing ill feeling, however, with the South Korean government protesting after a map on the official Olympics website showed the disputed islands of Dokdo – known as Takeshima in Japan – as Japanese territory.

Lee Nak-yon, a former South Korean prime minister and chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, in a Facebook post requested that Japan abide by the Olympic Charter’s commitment to political neutrality.

“I also urge the IOC to take prompt and stern action against Japan’s move,” said Lee, who is expected to stand in next year’s presidential election. “If Japan continues to refuse, the Korean government should take all possible measures, including a boycott of the Games.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Flood of bad news mars Games run-up