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With six months to go, the Tokyo Olympics are swimming against a tide of doubt

A man sits on the shoreline near the Olympic Rings in Tokyo. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
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TOKYO — When the Summer Games were postponed in March of last year, organizers had a vision: In July 2021, a torch would be carried into this city’s new National Stadium, and its flame would bring the Olympic cauldron to life. The Tokyo Games would be emblematic of mankind’s victory over the coronavirus and a source of renewed hope for the planet.

Six months before those Opening Ceremonies are scheduled to take place, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga maintain that vision will become reality.

But the virus is not so easily beaten, and the past two weeks have obscured such optimism in a fog of doubt. Gripped with its worst wave of infections since the pandemic began, Japan placed Tokyo under a state of emergency Jan. 7.

The sports world also felt the effects of the rising virus numbers. Outbreaks among scores of Japanese sumo wrestlers as well as badminton, rugby and table tennis players have led to mass withdrawals or outright cancellations in the past two weeks. Outside Japan, the Australian Open was thrown into disarray when air passengers coming from qualifying tournaments in Qatar tested positive on arrival.

Even as Tokyo 2020 organizers insisted their determination to hold the event was “unwavering,” a senior Japanese government minister admitted the decision on whether to hold the Games could “go either way.” Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday the virus outbreak had put “real pressure” on Suga to cancel the Games.

Public opinion in Japan has soured, and the resignation of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on health grounds in September robbed the Games of its biggest believer in the government. The suspicion that Japan may be losing its nerve is growing.

But the people closest to the planning for the Games insist a path remains. A year ago, the decision by the Australian and Canadian Olympic committees to withdraw their athletes helped force Abe to agree to a postponement. Today, prospective visitors sound much more confident.

“The Tokyo Games are definitely on,” Australian Olympic Committee chief Matt Carroll said in Sydney on Friday. “The flame will be lit on the 23rd of July.”

Virus surge puts ‘real pressure’ on Japan to cancel Olympics, Australia leader says

The Olympic world was sent spinning Thursday night by a report in the British newspaper the Times, in which an unnamed Japanese government official said the government had privately concluded the Games would have to be canceled. The report prompted swift denials from Japanese and Olympic officials, and IOC President Thomas Bach spoke Friday with all 206 National Olympic Committees, reassuring them that plans for this summer are still on schedule.

“We are working to prepare for all the potential scenarios we may face in July to August this year, and this is a wide range,” Bach said in a video statement released Friday by the IOC. “So we are putting together a huge toolbox of measures, and then we will decide at the appropriate time which of the tools we need to address the situation.”

The IOC and Tokyo 2020 organizers similarly expressed confidence last spring about delivering an Olympics that summer and faced heavy criticism for being slow in announcing a year-long postponement. Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, an international advocacy group for Olympic athletes, said that drawn-out process and the lack of details surrounding these postponed Games have fomented distrust and consternation for many athletes over the plans for 2021.

“We all know that every athlete wants to go to the Games, but the question is at what cost?” he said. “And I think that’s where the IOC has dropped the ball. And they’ve dropped the ball since the beginning. I know it’s difficult, but the lack of transparency on what the plans are — surely the IOC has a duty of care to inform athletes and the National Olympic Committees on what are the plans, what are the cutoff dates, what are the precautions being put in place? How can you justify athletes competing and training right now abroad when the rest of society is asked to stay home and locked out in a lot of places?”

Welcoming the world?

There are several key questions: whether it is safe for spectators, athletes and the broader Japanese public; whether the sporting integrity of the Games can be maintained; whether the Japanese public can be brought around; and whether the timeline can be managed.

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said at a public lecture this month that a “very difficult” decision on whether to allow spectators will have to be made in February or March. The door to foreign spectators, though, seems to be closing, not least because the prospect of hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors undoubtedly has undermined public support for the Games in this nation, with its island mentality.

“With athletes, coaches and people around them and the IOC members coming from all over the world, that’s already a huge number,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, executive board member of the Japanese Olympic Committee. “For the volunteers, having spectators from overseas will change their level of concern. Personally, I think it will be difficult to have foreign spectators.”

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The case for some domestic spectators is stronger. On Jan. 4, more than 24,000 physically distanced spectators attended Monday’s season finale of Japan’s professional soccer league at the new National Stadium, where the Opening Ceremonies are set to take place. Even under the state of emergency, Tokyo is allowing 5,000 spectators at sporting events, appropriately spaced out, wearing masks and refraining from cheering and shouting.

Japan isn’t expected to begin vaccinating its population until late February, and medical experts say it won’t be possible to inoculate everyone by July 23. However, it should be possible to bring infection numbers way down by then and have enough vaccine coverage — backed with rapid testing and sensible precautions — to reduce the risks.

Although Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya said organizers are not willing to stage the Games behind closed doors, that remains a fallback option: Kyodo News reported Friday the government had begun to consider a spectator-free Games as a way to avoid a cancellation.

Athletes who have trained for the 2020 Olympics in Japan are focusing on what's ahead after the coronavirus pandemic forced the Games to be postponed. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Higher, faster … riskier?

The bigger questions appear to be how to ensure the safety of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes — and safeguard the integrity of the Games.

Just this month, 65 wrestlers were forced to withdraw from a national sumo tournament in Tokyo after contracting the virus or being in close contact with someone who had, and 51 players were forced to withdraw from the national table tennis championships in Osaka for the same reason.

Japan’s entire 22-member badminton team had to withdraw from the Thailand Open after men’s singles world champion Kento Momota tested positive. The opening of Japan’s Top League rugby matches was put on hold after 67 players and staff were found to have the virus, and a cycling event in Wakayama turned into a covid cluster, with 31 of 113 participants later testing positive.

Former Japanese swimmer Takeshi Matsuda, an Olympic medalist, said it would be a nightmare if an outbreak caused last-minute withdrawals at the Games.

“The Olympics are the top competition for sports, and if the top athletes from around the world can’t compete, for me that’s not a full-scale Olympics,” he said.

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Terrence Burns, a former IOC executive and U.S.-based global sports marketing veteran, said everyone involved in the Games realizes “holding an unsafe Games could frankly destroy a lot of the value that the Games stand for and aspire to.”

“I have a hard time believing the IOC would proceed with a Games that would put athletes’ or spectators’ lives and health at risk,” Burns said. “They have traditionally had a very long-term view on the Games.”

Yet Takaya, the spokesman, said Tokyo 2020 and the IOC have been studying all the sporting events that have been taking place around the world during the pandemic, and he promised detailed plans would be issued soon on how infections would be avoided and controlled.

“All the sporting events that have been happening are a big asset for Tokyo 2020,” he said. “We have to look carefully at what’s going wrong, and that’s exactly we are discussing right now.”

Futures market

The IOC already has asked competitors to minimize their time in the Athletes Village, arriving five days before and leaving 48 hours after their events when possible. The Australian Open model — 14 days of pretournament quarantine — won’t be considered, but Takaya said training sites across the country could be made available for national teams who wanted to arrive early, allowing more time for training and acclimatization — and coronavirus testing.

Paralympians have been another major concern, especially if they have underlying heath conditions that could put them at risk. But those concerns are overblown, insists Craig Spencer, chief brand and communications officer for the International Paralympic Committee.

“This is where the public perception needs correcting,” he said. “Obviously its impact on someone with a disability could be a different impact compared to other people. So those athletes with high support needs, should they catch covid, are going to be most at-risk. But you’ve got to consider, our athlete community is supremely fit. No matter which sport you’re in the Paralympics, you’ve performed years of training. We’re pretty confident in that regard.”

Getting vaccinated won’t be compulsory, but the IOC is encouraging Olympic attendees to do so, and it hopes to work with the World Health Organization to make sure athletes have access to supplies.

With qualifying events and Olympic trials scheduled for the spring, the timeline isn’t long. But it is long enough, former IOC marketing director Michael Payne said.

“The key point is it’s six months away,” he said. “And with the vaccine starting to roll out, the situation in the world in six months’ time certainly will look very different now than it does today.”

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But a considerably closer date looms large in the minds of Tokyo 2020 organizers and the government here. On March 25, the Olympic torch relay is set to start in Fukushima prefecture, and no one wants a false start. Contractors start arriving in April, when plans start to get cemented in place. Last year, the Games were postponed March 23, just three days before the relay was set to begin.

Things may look better in six months’ time, but how much better will they look in two months? Will Japan really be in position to guarantee a safe Olympics 60 days from now?

“I can understand why people are nervous,” Spencer said. “One thing that ourselves, the IOC and Tokyo 2020, need to get better at in the coming months is explaining to people why we’re optimistic we can deliver a safe and secure Games.

“There’s so much that’s been going on behind the scenes. We all believe we’ve got the plans in place that can deliver these Games in a safe and secure way. Twelve months ago, we didn’t have that. We do now because we’ve been working our backsides off the last 12 months on this.”

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.