TOKYO, Japan — The president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee hinted Friday that even local fans may be barred from venues when the games open in just under two months.
Fans from abroad were ruled out months ago as being too risky during a pandemic.
The prospect of empty venues at the postponed Olympics became more likely when the Japanese government decided Friday to extend a state of emergency until June 20 as COVID-19 cases continue to put the medical system under strain.
The state of emergency was to have been lifted on Monday. The extension in Tokyo, Osaka and other prefectures raises even more questions if the Olympics can be held at all.
Organizers and the IOC are insistent they will go ahead despite polls in Japan showing 60-80% want them called off.
“We would like to make a decision as soon as possible (on fans), but after the state of emergency is lifted we will assess,” organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said at her weekly briefing.
Hashimoto promised to decide on local fans by April, then put it off until early June. Now the deadline is within a month of the July 23 opening date.
“There are many people who are saying that for the Olympic Games we have to run without spectators, although other sports are accepting spectators," Hashimoto said. "So we need to keep that in mind. We need to avoid that the local medical services are affected. We need to take those things into consideration before agreeing on the spectator count.”
Cancellation pressure grows daily on Tokyo and the IOC as more questions arise about the risks of bringing 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from more than 200 countries and territories into Japan, a country that has been largely closed off during the pandemic.
The IOC says more than 80% of athletes and staff staying in the Olympic Village on Tokyo Bay will be vaccinated. They are expected to remain largely in a bubble at the village and at venues.
In addition to athletes, tens of thousands of judges, officials, VIPs, media and broadcasters will also have to enter Japan.
Earlier this week, the New England Journal of Medicine said in a commentary: “We believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence.”
It questioned the IOC’s so-called Playbooks, which spell out rules at the games for athletes, staff, media and others. The final edition will be published next month. Also this week, the Asahi Shimbun — the country's second-largest newspaper — said the Olympics should be canceled.
The British Medical Journal last month in an editorial also asked organizers to “reconsider” holding the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic.
On Thursday, the head of a small doctors' union in Japan warned that holding the Olympics could lead to the spread of variants of the coronavirus. He mentioned strains in India, Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
Japan has attributed about 12,500 deaths to COVID-19, a relatively small number that has gone up steadily in the last few months. The vaccination rollout began slowly in Japan, but has moved more quickly in the last few days. Vaccinated people are estimated at about 5% of the population.
The IOC, which often cites the World Health Organization as the source of much of its coronavirus information, has been steadfast in saying the games will happen. It receives about 75% of its income from selling broadcast rights, which is estimated to be $2 billion-$3 billion from Tokyo. That cashflow has been slowed by the postponement.
Japan itself has officially spent $15.4 billion or organize the Olympics, and government audits suggest the figure is even higher.
Senior IOC member Richard Pound told a British newspaper this week that "barring Armageddon" the games will take place. Last week, IOC vice president John Coates was asked if the Olympics would open, even if there were a state of emergency.
“Absolutely, yes,” he replied.
IOC President Thomas Bach has also said “everyone in the Olympic community” needs to make sacrifices to hold the Olympics.
The message got pushback from Japanese social and local media, some of which noted that the IOC and the so-called Olympic Family are booked into many of Tokyo's top five-star hotels during the games.
Hashimoto defended the IOC's leadership.
“The IOC has a strong determination to hold the games," she said. “So such a strong will is translated into strong words. That’s how I feel.”