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IOC member says ‘it’s far too early to panic’ about Tokyo Olympics amid coronavirus upsurge

The Olympics are still a go for July, but a state of emergency has been declared in Tokyo. (Issei Kato/Reuters)
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International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said plans for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, postponed until this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, look “encouraging” even though the country declared a state of emergency in its capital city Thursday as cases continue to surge.

“The elephant in the room remains the virus,” Pound said Friday in a telephone interview. “And, you know, if there is an uncontrolled upsurge, well, that will certainly increase the risk. But on the preparations to date and the results to date, it looks pretty encouraging. It may be stripped down a little bit, but the important thing is that they take place so that message gets out to the world that we can beat this thing.”

Although Japan has seen a lower prevalence of positive tests than the United States or countries in Europe, cases have surged over the past two months to the point that hospitals are starting to be overwhelmed. The country set a record with slightly more than 6,000 new cases Wednesday, and the next day Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency in the Tokyo area, though compliance is largely voluntary. Government officials are asking bars and restaurants to close early and residents to refrain from non-urgent outings; the number of new cases continued to rise Thursday and Friday.

Earlier on Friday, Pound told the BBC that he “can’t be certain” that the Olympics would go on as planned in July, but he told The Washington Post that he was encouraged by the steps the Japanese government has taken to contain the virus.

“They certainly had an upsurge, and that has worried them, rightly so. But they’ve taken the steps that are required, and they’ve taken them quickly,” Pound, a Canadian and the longest-serving IOC member, told The Post. “This is going to change. The situation will change over the next two weeks, four weeks. I think it’s far too early to panic at this stage. I would give it 3-to-1 odds of going ahead on the basis of what we know today.”

The IOC is not expected to reveal specific plans for the Tokyo Olympics until the spring.

Pound reiterated to The Post his hopes that Olympic athletes get vaccinated before the Games but only after the “absolute priorities” are taken care of: “the health-care workers, the front-line folks, the old and vulnerable, the ones with conditions and so on,” he said.

U.S. Olympic officials have yet to decide if vaccinations will be mandatory for Tokyo

“And then after you get through those must-haves, you start thinking about a plan for nice-to-haves,” he said. “I said that each country is going to have to make its own decisions on this, a triage of sorts, whether it goes by age or this area, remoteness or whatever criteria will come into that. But don’t forget the Olympic athletes because they will be traveling to a zone where this stuff first started and they will be at risk.

“And what’s important about the Olympics is, you know, after what’s going to be 18 months of really tough sledding on a worldwide basis, we need some good news and a successful Olympics with young people coming from 200-plus countries to make a success of the Games and for all the reasons that is good — that’s a piece of good news that we all need. It’s encouragement. It’s a demonstration of resilience in the face of really tough conditions. And we need some good news. And so think about them when you start putting your national priorities together.”

Pound told The Post that he hoped widespread vaccinations would allow spectators to attend Olympic events in Tokyo, noting that “the Japanese have experimented with that and had a certain amount of success.” More than 24,000 physically distanced spectators attended Monday’s season finale of Japan’s professional soccer league at the new National Stadium, the planned venue for the Opening Ceremonies. But fans were prohibited from cheering to prevent potential transmission of the virus, and under the new state of emergency, attendance at sporting events and other large gatherings will be capped at 5,000 until at least Feb. 7.

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