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Reversing course, Japan will ban all spectators from Olympic venues in and around Tokyo

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TOKYO - Japan will bar spectators from all Olympic events held in and around Tokyo, organizers announced Thursday, as the government imposed a fresh state of emergency to cover the capital during the Games.

"This is a sorry message that we have to announce," Seiko Hashimoto, president of the organizing committee, said at a news conference. "I am very sorry for those people who will be disappointed. But in order to prevent the spread, this was the only choice available for us to take. I hope that you understand the difficult choice that we made."

Earlier, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Tokyo's fourth state of emergency would begin July 12 and last until Aug. 22, citing rising infections in the capital and the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Hours after Suga's announcement, the organizers of the Games outlined their decision about the spectator ban, just two weeks before the Games are due to be opened July 23.

Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian who represented Japan as a cyclist and speedskater, expressed sympathy for the athletes who will have to compete without fans cheering them on, but she said Japan would prepare the stage so they can do their best and their "fantastic performances" can be enjoyed by people all over the world.

"They want a lot of people to watch their performance. I know how they feel, but many Japanese people were worried about the covid-19 situation," she said. "So if a lot of people are opposed to the idea, maybe we should refrain from having spectators - and there are athletes thinking that way, as well. "

Olympic organizers, working closely with the government, had announced two weeks ago that they would allow some domestic spectators to attend events. They capped attendance at 10,000, or 50% of a venue's capacity, but warned at the time that they might change course if infections rose again.

That's exactly what happened. But a disappointing performance by the ruling party in last weekend's municipal elections in the capital, partly blamed on anxiety over the Olympics, may have been the final straw.

The International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee said they respect Japan's decision and "support it in the interest of safe and secure Games for everybody."

Japan's patchwork of coronavirus rules can often appear confusing, and the banning of spectators for the Olympics did not bring much more coherence.

Suga asked bars and restaurants not to serve alcohol during the state of emergency - although the city's shopping streets and commuter trains are likely to remain packed during the daytime, as they have been during previous states of emergency this year.

Japanese professional baseball and soccer has also carried on all year with limited numbers of spectators inside stadiums, and will continue to do so.

The Olympics, though, has inflamed particular passions here and become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the government's response to the pandemic. Fears have been fueled about foreigners bringing in dangerous strains of the virus, and about huge crowds mingling and spreading infections far and wide.

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said the Olympics was higher-risk than professional baseball because it involved many activities taking place at the same time, bringing many people together from around the country.

The government's own scientific advisers warned last month that allowing even limited numbers of fans would raise the risk of increased rates of coronavirus infections. Public opposition to proceeding with the Games had waned in recent weeks, but most people still believed the Olympics should be canceled, postponed or should go ahead without spectators, surveys showed.

The ban will affect all sporting events taking place in Tokyo and in the three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, organizers said. That includes the vast majority of events, such as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, track-and-field athletics and swimming.

Some events held in more distant regions, including earlier rounds of the soccer, baseball and softball competitions and some indoor cycling, to be held in Miyagi, Fukushima and Shizuoka prefectures, will be subject to the 10,000-people or 50% cap.

It means Tokyo's newly rebuilt 68,000-capacity National Stadium, which was not completed in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as initially hoped, will be empty throughout the tournament, symbolizing the vast sums of money invested in these Olympics with little reward for the people of Japan or the country's economy.

The stadium cost around 157 billion yen ($1.4 billion) to rebuild, according to official figures. The total cost of the Games is officially estimated at $15.4 billion, but government audits suggest the real cost was twice as high. All but $6.7 billion is public money, with the International Olympic Committee contributing only about $1.5 billion.

The announcement of the spectator ban also highlights the government's failure to get its vaccination program underway early enough to allow the Games to take place safely with fans.

The pace of vaccinations has picked up significantly in recent weeks, with 52.6 million doses now administered, enough to have fully vaccinated around 20% of the population.

Yet the contrast with Britain is also remarkable: England beat Denmark in a semifinal of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament in front of 67,000 fans at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.

The rate of new coronavirus infections in Japan, at fewer than 2,000 new cases a day and 800,000 in all, is a fraction of the rate in Britain, which had 32,000 new cases Wednesday.

However, the fact that most people in Japan have not been vaccinated means the infections here are proportionately more dangerous, and the daily death toll in Japan, averaging around 20 a day over the past week, is roughly comparable to Britain's.

Japanese Olympics sponsors are canceling or scaling back booths and promotional events tied to the Games, frustrated by "very last minute" decisions by organizers and delays in deciding on the policy toward spectators, sources told the Reuters news agency.

Some 60 Japanese companies paid a record of more than $3 billion for sponsorship rights and then another $200 million to extend their contracts after the Games were delayed. But they have seen any potential benefits gradually eroded by the bans on attendance, a glum mood and bad vibes surrounding the Games.

Even before the ban it was already gearing up to be a distinctly joyless event for the Japanese people, with spectators told not to shout or cheer, to wear masks, to go straight home after events without even pausing to chat outside venues, and with most bars and restaurants closed in the evening anyway. In the end, almost all fans will have to be satisfied with watching the events on television.

Organizers also announced this week that spectators have even been told to stay away from the marathon and road-walking events, which are due to take place on the northern island of Hokkaido, and they have also moved the torch relay off public roads when it reaches Tokyo on Friday. Instead, a series of torch-lighting ceremonies will be held - without spectators.

Shigeru Omi, the government's top health adviser, reiterated his concerns to a parliamentary health committee this week.

"We are asking many people to take steps to prevent further spread of the infection," he said. "Images of spectators would be sending out a contradictory message."

The announcement marks a sad culmination of months of agonizing for Olympics organizers and prolonged uncertainty for ticket holders, who had paid huge sums of money to attend events in massively oversubscribed lotteries.

It means Tokyo 2020, as the postponed event is still being branded, is largely going to be a made-for-TV affair, with even its staging in the intense heat and humidity of the Tokyo summer driven by a desire to maximize viewers and advertising revenue in the United States.

Organizers had sold around 4.45 million tickets domestically and 600,000 to overseas fans before the Games were postponed last April. They later received around 810,000 requests for domestic refunds due to the pandemic.

Japan has been desperate to show the world it could proceed with a successful Olympics despite the pandemic, but the specter of empty venues casts a shadow over what should have been a celebration, not just for competitors but also for the Japanese people.

The issue also highlights the controversial decision to postpone the Games for only one year rather than two, a decision driven by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who gambled that the pandemic would have abated and he would still be around to preside over celebrations this year.

Abe stepped down due to ill health last August. In a magazine interview released this week, he slammed critics who have raised concerns about holding the Games this year, calling the naysayers "anti-Japan."

Published : July 09, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Simon Denyer