TOKYO: Tokyo 2020 Olympics organisers have bowed to political pressure and rising Covid-19 infections and banned almost all fans from the Games just two weeks before they start, after insisting that they could go ahead with spectators.
The decision, made after Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on Thursday a fourth state of emergency for the capital, all but robs the Games of their last hope for pomp and public spectacle.
Japanese Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said he felt sorry for athletes but that the decision was the right one.
"Please stay at home for this Olympics, and share that excitement with families at home," he told a news conference.
The Games, postponed from last year, are scheduled to run from July 23 to Aug. 8, and opinion polls have consistently shown the Japanese public is worried about going ahead with them during a pandemic.
In a recent media survey, 35% favoured no spectators, 26% wanted some limits and 34% wanted the Games cancelled or postponed. Spectators from overseas were banned months ago.
The move also looks likely to snuff out a best-case scenario for Suga, in which he would call a snap general election soon after a successful Games that had rejuvenated his soggy support.
"That scenario has broken down completely," independent political analyst Atsuo Ito said. An election for parliament's powerful lower house must be held later this year and Suga also faces a reelection race for the ruling party leadership.
Once seen as a chance for Japan to showcase its recovery from prolonged stagnation and a devastating earthquake a decade ago, the event has been hit by massive budget overruns.
Medical experts have said for weeks that having no spectators would be the least risky option, amid widespread public fears that an influx of tens of thousands of athletes and officials would fuel a fresh wave of infections.
REDUCED RISK, LITTLE BUZZ
Tara Kirk Sell, an Olympic silver medalist in swimming and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, welcomed the decision.
"It's obviously disappointing for everyone involved. But I think it reduces the risk quite a bit," she told Reuters.
Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said on Friday that organisers aimed to decide on spectators at the Aug. 24-Sept. 5 Paralympics as soon as possible after the Olympics close.
Asked about plans by top International Olympic Committee officials to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastated by atomic bombs in the final days of World War Two, Hashimoto said the visits were a chance to send a message of world peace.
IOC President Thomas Bach is to visit Hiroshima on July 16 and IOC Vice-President John Coates Nagasaki the same day.
Remarks by IOC officials seeming to dismiss concerns about the pandemic have angered many in Japan and Hashtag #BachGoHome trended on Twitter on Thursday, the day he arrived in Japan.
Japan has not suffered the huge outbreaks seen elsewhere but has recorded more than 800,000 cases and over 14,890 deaths. Tokyo reported 822 new infections on Friday, the 20th straight day of week-on-week rises.
Just over 25% of the population has received one vaccine shot and supply glitches are causing an initially delayed vaccination rollout to stumble.
Tokyo - which had been counting on a record boom in tourism - has experienced little buzz and excitement.
The Tokyo leg of the Olympic torch relay kicked off on Friday with a small ceremony in a nearly empty park. The relay will be kept off public streets and only small ceremonies, with no public spectators, will be held over the next two weeks
People will also be asked not to gather for events on public roads, such as the triathlon, though some venues outside the greater Tokyo metropolitan area will allow small numbers of spectators.