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Tokyo Olympics marathon runners will now have to battle the pain barrier without fans to buoy them

A spectator raises a sign reading, “It is impossible to hold the Olympics, face up to reality,” during the half-marathon at the Hokkaido-Sapporo Marathon Festival 2021 in May, a test event for the marathon at the Tokyo Games. (Kyodo/Reuters)

TOKYO — Talk about the loneliness of the distance runner.

The marathon is among the Olympics’ most iconic events: crowds of cheering fans metaphorically carrying runners through the pain barrier, culminating in the famous finish in the Olympic stadium to close out the track and field program.

The men’s and women’s marathons at the upcoming Summer Games will be altogether lonelier, more low-key affairs.

The races, along with race-walk events, were moved to Sapporo in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido last year to avoid Tokyo’s intense heat and humidity.

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On Tuesday, organizers said they had met with local authorities and decided to keep spectators away, too.

“At the meeting, it was agreed that in view of the current COVID-19 situation, it will be necessary to reduce the risk of infection by restricting the movement of members of the public,” the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said in a statement. “It has therefore been decided to ask the public to refrain from spectating along the course.”

It is the latest setback for an Olympics that even the country’s deputy prime minister has called “cursed.”

Overseas spectators already have been barred from attending. Two weeks ago, organizers said they would allow limited numbers of domestic fans, with attendances capped at 10,000 or 50 percent of a venue’s capacity, whichever is smaller.

But as coronavirus infections rise in Tokyo, organizers have been forced to rethink that decision. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to extend a “quasi state of emergency” to cover Tokyo during the Games, with renewed restrictions on restaurants and bars.

This week, Kyodo News reported that all events taking place in large stadiums — and all events ending after 9 p.m. — are likely to take place without any fans. That would include the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as well as the track and field program.

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But organizers have already said that VIP guests will not count as spectators, and the Asahi newspaper said they would be exempt from the spectator ban.

Organizers are expected to announce their decision about fans after a meeting with the International Olympic Committee that is likely to take place Thursday.

The Olympics, in short, are shaping up to be a largely made-for-TV affair, with only a few bigwigs and media representatives in attendance for many of the most dramatic moments. For the ordinary people of Tokyo, though, it will probably be a rather less joyful affair, with many ticket holders, who won their places in fiercely competitive raffles, likely to be disappointed.

Nor will there be much of a celebration as the Olympic torch finally wends its way to Tokyo after a four-month journey around Japan that has been badly disrupted by the pandemic.

The Tokyo metropolitan government said the relay would be taken off public roads for most of its final 15-day leg around the capital prefecture, apart from some legs taking place on small islands.

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Organizers insist the Games will be safe and secure, and they are trying to keep competitors, officials and media representatives largely enclosed in a bubble to prevent them from introducing new infections into Japan. The vast majority will also be vaccinated and will be frequently tested while in the country.

But two Ugandans, one athlete and a coach, and one Serbian competitor have already tested positive for the coronavirus after entering the country. The Ugandans had already been vaccinated. Twelve Olympic staff members have also tested positive for the virus this month, including two that work at the Olympic Village, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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