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Abe says Tokyo Olympics cannot be held under current circumstances

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a House of Councillors Budget Committee session in Tokyo on March 23, 2020. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday this summer's Tokyo Olympics cannot be held under current circumstances due to the new coronavirus pandemic, suggesting for the first time that the games may have to be postponed.

"If I'm asked whether we can hold the Olympics at this point in time, I would have to say that the world is not in such a condition," Abe told a parliamentary session, adding he hopes to hold talks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach over the issue.

"It's important that not only our country but also all the other participating countries can take part in the games fully prepared," Abe said.

The premier's comments came a day after the IOC said it will study alternative plans for the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to open on July 24, amid the global outbreak, and make an assessment within the next four weeks.

The Japanese government will soon tell the IOC it will accept a postponement if the organization decides on it as a precaution against the coronavirus, a source familiar with the plan said.

Tokyo Olympic organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said he supports the IOC's decision to review existing plans, adding representatives from Japan and the IOC will hold discussions to examine possible scenarios closely.

"Japan is in a critical state, and the situations in the United States and Europe have been abnormal," Mori said. "We are not so foolish as to say we will do it under our first (plan)."

Abe, who has previously said he aims to hold the major sporting event in its "complete form," told the parliamentary session, "If it is difficult to hold the games in such a way, we have to decide to postpone it, giving top priority to (the health of the) athletes."

"Although the IOC will make the final decision (on the matter), we are of the same view that cancellation is not an option," Abe said while vowing to work closely with the IOC and the Tokyo metropolitan government.

The IOC on Sunday officially admitted the possibility of pushing back the quadrennial event, saying it will examine various scenarios, adding that it will finalize discussions "within the next four weeks."

"These scenarios relate to modifying existing operational plans for the games to go ahead on 24 July 2020, and also for changes to the start date of the games," the IOC said in a statement.

Speaking at a press conference, organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto said reviewing the possibilities, including postponement, is "not easy" and the organizers are open to "all options."

Mori said some of the challenges organizers will face in terms of postponement include handling the costs of delaying and the availability of venues.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters, "(The IOC) clearly stated that cancellation will not happen, and I am glad to share that view."

"There are lots of issues, but I would like to discuss possible scenarios over the next four weeks with the IOC and the organizing committee," she said. "The Tokyo Games now have another goal, to defeat the novel coronavirus."

Mori said local organizers will decide in the coming days whether to go ahead with the opening of the domestic leg of the torch relay in Fukushima Prefecture on Thursday, as developments surrounding the pandemic have been changing rapidly.

Mori added that Bach told him that the Japanese organizers have the authority to make decisions about the domestic leg of the torch relay.

Members of the organizing committee revealed Monday they may drastically reduce the scale of the torch relay, including canceling the participation of members of the public.

Under modified plans, the Olympic flame may be carried by car in the initial stages of the relay.

Muto and Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto each said Monday the relay will proceed as planned for the moment.

Mori also revealed that Abe is now reluctant to attend the kick-off ceremony since the Japanese government has been requesting people refrain from holding large events to prevent the spread of the virus.

Olympic torchbearers in Japan expressed concerns over the IOC's new direction.

"Both runners and spectators of the relay would be half-hearted. I wonder whether they will let us run again if (the sporting event) is postponed," said 66-year-old Yumiko Nishimoto, who is scheduled to run in Fukushima on Thursday as one of the 10,000 torchbearers in Japan.

The 121-day Japanese leg is scheduled to kick off at the J-Village soccer training center, which served as a frontline base of operations to battle the 2011 nuclear crisis caused by the March 11 quake-tsunami disaster that year.

A decision on postponement "should be made before the torch relay starts," Nishimoto said. "I have mixed feelings as I feel that we are being messed around."

The global coronavirus pandemic has cast a cloud over the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics from July 24 to Aug. 9 and the Paralympics from Aug. 25 to Sep. 6. In recent days, national Olympic committees in Brazil, Norway and the Netherlands have called for postponements.

Japanese government officials have repeatedly said preparations are under way for the games to go ahead as scheduled, and the flame for the Olympics arrived on Friday in Japan.

During a videoconference with other leaders from the Group of Seven industrialized nations earlier in the month, Abe secured support for holding "complete" games, meaning they should be held with spectators and without any downsizing.

"I think U.S. President (Donald) Trump and other G-7 leaders will support my decision," Abe said in the parliamentary session.

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