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Concerns remain over Tokyo Games next summer as preparations move forward

(Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- While Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach agreed on Sept. 23 during a phone conference to work together toward a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games that have been postponed to next summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, concerns still remain as Europe is seeing a virus resurgence, among other uncertainties.

    It was the first conference between the two since Suga's inauguration, and they spoke on the phone for some 15 minutes. Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto who was present at the conference told reporters, "They agreed to cooperate closely to hold the games next year in a forward-looking manner."

    Suga, who served as the government's top spokesperson for nearly eight years under the premiership of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Bach, who is a lawyer, are both known for their abilities to execute practical tasks. Their first conference apparently went smoothly. Holding the Tokyo Games next summer is indispensable for both Bach and Suga: for the former, to maintain the IOC's financial base, and for the latter, to boost Japan's economy as someone who has pushed for the government-sponsored "Go To" travel and eat-out subsidy campaign. The Japanese government and IOC are looking to reconstruct the plans by the end of this year for the games to be held in the summer of 2021.

    However, momentum within Japan for holding the games is not picking up. According to a survey conducted by research firm Tokyo Shoko Research Ltd. in July and August targeting Japanese companies, a majority of the firms expressed negative views over the Tokyo Games, with 27.8% wanting them to be canceled, while another 25.8% said that the events should be further postponed. There have also been other surveys indicating the public's lack of enthusiasm toward the games.

    Abe, who had taken leadership in this matter from the bidding stage, announced at the end of August that he was resigning from office, and Japan's efforts appeared unsatisfactory from the IOC's point of view. A source close to the committee told the Mainichi Shimbun, "European countries and the United States are resuming international sporting competitions even though they still face grave situations regarding coronavirus infections. There are some within the IOC who have voiced doubts about Japan's seriousness over hosting the games."

    Apparently in a bid to give Japan a push, Bach on Sept. 22 released a message on the IOC's official website, writing that the world is seeing "sport can be organized safely, even under the ongoing restrictions. This should give all of us confidence in our preparations for future events, including the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020," suggesting his view that sport events can be held without coronavirus vaccines. A source related to the 2020 Games sees Bach's statement as "a message from the IOC to Japan to present concrete measures for holding the games soon."

    The source says the reason behind the IOC rushing Japan is that "They are strongly concerned over a potential domino effect where the cancelation of the Tokyo Games will affect the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 and the 2024 Paris Olympics." The day Bach released his statement was a milestone day to mark 500 more days to go until the Beijing Olympics.

    In response to Bach's message, once-stalled efforts due to factors including the pandemic, Tokyo gubernatorial election and the prime minister's resignation started moving forward again. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike visited the prime minister's office on Sept. 23 to ask Prime Minister Suga for cooperation in hosting the games. Koike emphasized after the meeting that the two agreed on working together to make sure that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are held next summer.

    While the IOC made a step forward for the 2020 Games, some express cynical views. Bach wrote that the committee will "cooperate closely with the World Health Organization (WHO)," and a source close to the games who has connections with an IOC member commented, "The IOC's principle stance of avoiding risks has not changed. If the situation regarding infections worsens, the committee will change its responses based on the WHO's expertise."

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara and Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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