The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has sought to reassure a Japanese public anxious over Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Games during the coronavirus pandemic, announcing that most athletes arriving for the sporting event will be vaccinated.
IOC President Thomas Bach on Wednesday also offered to send in additional medical personnel to help out with healthcare operations at the Tokyo Olympic Village and other sport venues.
With less than 10 weeks until the pandemic-postponed Games open in July, much of Japan, including Tokyo and Osaka, is under a state of emergency following a spike in COVID-19 infections.
The surge has stoked alarm, with a majority of Japanese wanting the competition delayed further or cancelled.
Bach himself was forced to scrap a visit to Tokyo this week due to virus restrictions, but he sounded a confident note during a video address at the start of three days of meetings between the IOC and local organisers.
“The most important principle is very clear. The Olympic village is a safe place and the Olympic and Paralympic Games of Tokyo 2020 will be organised in a safe way,” he said.
“At this moment, already as many as 75 percent of the residents of the Olympic village are already vaccinated or have secured vaccination in time before the Olympic Games,” he said, adding that IOC officials “have good reasons to believe that this figure will be well above 80 percent” by the time the Games begin.
Organisers have outlined extensive virus countermeasures to keep the Games safe, including barring overseas fans for the first time ever.
But with Japan battling a fourth wave of infections, two doctors’ associations have warned in recent days that the healthcare system is already overstretched and the Games would add further stress.
“We strongly request that the authorities convince the IOC that holding the Olympics is difficult and obtain its decision to cancel the Games,” the 6,000-member Tokyo Medical Practitioners’ Association said in an open letter published online on Monday.
“Viruses are spread by people’s movements,” the letter said. “Japan will bear a heavy responsibility if the Olympics and Paralympics worsen the pandemic, increasing the number of those who must suffer and die.”
Overall, Japan has avoided an explosive spread of the virus experienced by other nations, with 11,500 deaths recorded since the pandemic began.
But the government has come under sharp criticism for its sluggish vaccination rollout. Only 1-2 percent of Japan’s population of 126 million are fully vaccinated, and it is unlikely that even the elderly population will be fully inoculated before the Games begin.
Cabinet figures this week also showed that less than 40 percent of Japan’s medical workers were fully vaccinated.
The problem is especially pronounced in the capital, Tokyo, and other large population centres, according to the Nikkei newspaper, with the rate of fully inoculated medical workers standing at less than 30 percent.
In an apparent bid to address concerns, Bach said on Wednesday the IOC was willing to send in extra medical personnel.
The help would come from various national Olympic committees, he said, and the additional personnel would “support the medical operations and the strict implementation of the COVID-19 countermeasures in the Olympic Village and the Olympic venues”.
The IOC chief also said hundreds of sports events have been held safely during the pandemic, and cited recent test events in Tokyo that came off without many problems.
“None of these test events was a virus spreader for the Japanese people or the people of Tokyo,” he said.
The Olympics are to open on July 23, while the Paralympics will follow on August 24. They are a financial imperative for the IOC, which derives about 75 percent of its income from selling television rights and another 18 percent from sponsorship.
Japan has officially spent $15.4bn to organise the Olympics, although government audits suggest the figure is much higher.
Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister of Japan, said last week that holding a “safe and secure” Olympic games was possible if tight preventive measures were implemented.
Those included actions, he said, that would keep ordinary Japanese from coming into contact with those arriving in connection with the Games.