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Japan marks 100 days to go until Olympics amid COVID uncertainty

Former Olympic swimmer Aya Terakawa carries the Olympic torch at the Expo '70 Commemorative Park in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, on April 13, 2021. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan on Wednesday marked 100 days to go until the Tokyo Olympics despite many questions remaining unanswered over how the games can be held safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    The Olympics, which will open July 23 following an unprecedented one-year postponement, will feature over 10,000 athletes from around the world. But to prevent the spread of the virus, the event is set to look completely different from a typical Summer Games.

    The nationwide torch relay that started last month has already indicated how difficult it is to organize a major event during the global health crisis.

    The two-day relay that started in Osaka Prefecture on Tuesday was taken off the roads due to a recent surge in virus cases, with torchbearers running in an empty park instead.

    While the Japanese organizing committee, headed by former seven-time Olympian Seiko Hashimoto, has vowed to prioritize safety, the public remains skeptical about going ahead with the roughly two-week event as the pandemic seems to be far from over and most people in Japan are not yet vaccinated.

    Tokyo has seen infections rebound in recent days, forcing the government to designate the capital as requiring stronger COVID-19 measures, even though a state of emergency over the virus was lifted less than a month ago.

    Due to fears that the Olympics could become a global super-spreader event, spectators from overseas will not be allowed to attend, and competitions are expected to be held in front of a limited number of people living in Japan.

    Meanwhile, athletes will be tested for the virus regularly during their stay in Japan, while they will only be allowed to travel to their venues and other limited locations using designated vehicles, unless given special permission.

    The Olympics, the first in the Japanese capital since 1964, were postponed in March last year because of the pandemic. A record 33 sports made up of 339 events will be staged during the games that close on Aug. 8.

    Japan has logged over 513,000 infections and about 9,500 deaths due to the virus, both numbers smaller than most major economies. But Tokyo's total confirmed cases of more than 126,000 are far the highest among regions in the country.

    The organizing committee has entered the final phase of preparation. This month, the first test event was held since the postponement to review logistical operations. It will also release the second version of its "playbook," a set of COVID-19 guidelines, for athletes, officials and stakeholders involved with the games.

    The five organizing bodies of the games, including the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo metropolitan government, plan to convene a meeting by the end of April to set a direction on the issue of how many people will be permitted to enter venues.

    However, the Japan leg of the relay has lacked a festive atmosphere since it started on March 25 in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima.

    People are asked to watch an online streaming of the relay, involving some 10,000 runners, as much as possible and roadside spectators are requested to clap instead of cheering loudly and keep a physical distance from others.

    The relay has been considered a crucial opportunity for the organizers to turn public opinion in Japan back in favor of the Olympics.

    But a Kyodo News survey conducted between Saturday and Monday, showed only 24.5 percent believe the games should go ahead this summer.

    The Olympics will be followed by the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

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