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April 15, 2021

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100 days to Games as virus roars

A SECOND section of the Tokyo Olympics torch relay was pulled from public roads over spiking coronavirus cases yesterday, fueling fears about whether the postponed Games should go ahead with just 100 days until the opening ceremony.

Even as Tokyo unveiled installations featuring the Olympic rings and mascots to celebrate the 100-day milestone, organizers face monumental challenges as the virus surges.

They have barred overseas fans and delayed test events, but insist preparations are on track for the Games to open a year late on July 23.

Cancellation is “certainly not” on the table, International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates told reporters yesterday. “The Tokyo Games will be the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For organizers, there are some causes for optimism.

The Olympic torch is on its way across Japan, despite already being forced off roads in the Osaka region where it was being carried around a closed circuit yesterday with the general public kept away.

And vaccination programs are ramping up in many countries, with some athletes already inoculated.

Japan won’t require Olympic participants to be vaccinated, but the IOC is encouraging jabs and has secured Chinese-made doses for athletes in countries without access to them.

In Japan, sports events are still on, with crowd numbers capped, and fans have become used to virus rules that will be implemented at this summer’s Games, including a ban on cheering.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s decision to skip Tokyo 2020 over virus concerns has not prompted a rush for the exits, with athletes mostly seeming impatient for a return to the international stage.

“These past 14 months have been very motivating for all of us,” five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky said last week. “Once we get there we really want to show the world all the work that we’ve put in.”

In Japan, a historic golf Masters win by Hideki Matsuyama and swimmer Rikako Ikee’s comeback — just two years after being diagnosed with leukemia — are offering a feel-good factor.

But there’s no disguising the challenges more than a year after the pandemic caused the event’s historic postponement.

Surges of COVID-19 across Japan have forced the government to tighten restrictions only weeks after they were lifted and yesterday, the head of Tokyo’s Medical Association warned that the rising infections could make holding the Games “really difficult.”

The governor of western Ehime region announced the public torch relay would be scrapped later this month in the city of Matsuyama, citing the “extreme pressure” on local medical services from rising cases.

Tokyo 2020 organizers said a spectator-free relay event would be held behind closed doors instead.

Coates acknowledged the situation, but insisted organizers and Olympic officials are fully prepared.

“Of course we’re concerned, of course safety remains our priority, but we believe that we’re prepared for the worst situations,” he said.

Organizers have also released “playbooks” outlining anti-virus measures, to be updated later this month.


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