Covid-19 is increasingly turning very ugly and has prompted organisers of the Tokyo Olympics to slash attendence at the opening ceremony.
Japanese media reported Wednesday that the curtain-raiser at the 68,000-seat main stadium on 23 July will be watched only by people connected to sponsors, along with diplomats and other special guests, with the number sharply reduced from an initial estimate of 10,000, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said on Tuesday, citing multiple unidentified sources.
In addition, Olympic competitions at large venues and those scheduled for after 9pm will be held without spectators to discourage people from spending time in the capital after the events have ended.
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee has already banned overseas spectators and set a cap on domestic spectators of 10,000 per venue, or 50% of capacity.
The cap could be lowered, however, if Tokyo is still covered by quasi-emergency virus measures by the time the Games open – an increasingly likely prospect as cases continue to rise in the capital.
Organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have pushed ahead with the Games despite widespread public opposition and warnings from medical experts that the arrival of tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, officials and journalists risks triggering the spread of Covid-19 in Japan, where just 13.8% of people are fully vaccinated.
The IOC president, Thomas Bach, will meet Japanese government and Olympic officials to discuss attendance caps on Thursday, the same day the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is expected to extend the quasi-state of emergency in Tokyo beyond its original end date of 11 July.
The measures require bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 7pm and to close an hour later.
With packed venues an impossibility, Suga was keen to allow at least some spectators to watch live sport, but has said that a ban remains an option.
Members of his Liberal Democratic party are said to favour a ban after they fared badly in Sunday’s Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections, partly due to voter anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
“We must stay on high alert,” Suga told reporters this month after infections began rising again in Tokyo, adding that “having no spectators is a possibility”.
Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organising committee, agreed. “It’s not that we are determined to have spectators regardless of the situation,” she said last week.
Another symbolically important precursor to the sporting action will also undergo a drastic remake due to virus concerns.
The Olympic torch relay, set to reach Tokyo on Friday and parade through the centre of the city from 17 July until the opening ceremony, will be moved off public roads for the entire period and replaced with torch-lighting ceremonies closed to the public, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said.
In addition, the governor of Hokkaido, Naomichi Suzuki, has asked Tokyo 2020 organisers to consider banning roadside spectators from the marathon and race walk events.
Suzuki has asked committee officials to have strict virus prevention measures in place when the events are held in the island’s biggest city, Sapporo, from 5-8 August, according to the Kyodo news agency.