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Organisers to ban Olympic spectators as Tokyo declares coronavirus emergency

A doctor takes part in a protest against the Olympics in Tokyo on 23 June 2021. Protests have continued to take place in the run-up to the Games amid coronavirus fears. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

All spectators are set to be banned, Japan’s Asahi daily said on Thursday, as the country prepared to declare a state of emergency for the capital that will run through its hosting of the event to curb a new wave of infections.

Organisers were set to formally reach the decision on the spectators during five-way talks between key parties on Thursday evening, the newspaper said, citing people involved in the Games.

The move is the latest blow to the troubled Olympics, already delayed by a year because of the pandemic and plagued by a series of setbacks, including huge budget overruns.

Medical experts have said for weeks that having no spectators at the Games would be the least risky option amid widespread public concern that the influx of thousands of athletes and officials will fuel a fresh wave of infections.

Organisers have already banned overseas spectators and have for now set a cap on domestic viewers at 50% of capacity – up to 10,000 people.

Anyone wanting to support athletes has been told to do so by clapping rather than cheering or singing. Public viewing sites have been cancelled and companies, wary of public opposition, have been hesitant about advertising related to the Games, adding to a subdued mood in the Japanese capital.

The evening talks are to be chaired by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, who arrived in Tokyo on Thursday. Other participants include the Tokyo and national governments and Paralympic officials.

Tokyo infections rise

Japan has not experienced the kind of explosive Covid-19 outbreaks seen in many other countries but has had more than 810,000 cases and 14,900 deaths.

A slow vaccine roll-out has meant only a quarter of Japan’s population has had at least one vaccination shot.

The imposition of a new state of emergency in Tokyo comes after new daily infections in the capital rose to 920 on Wednesday, the highest level since mid-May.

Japan’s economy minister, Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the government’s coronavirus response, said the new restrictions will begin on 12 July and run through 22 August.

The Games are scheduled to run from 23 July to 8 August.

Tokyo is currently under slightly less strict “quasi emergency” curbs. Under the heightened restrictions, restaurants will be asked to stop serving alcohol, Nishimura said.

Areas neighbouring Tokyo where some Olympic events are also slated to take place, such as Chiba and Kanagawa, are set to remain under “quasi emergency” through 22 August.

Spectators, sponsors

Underscoring the last-minute nature of the preparations, organisers have presented various spectator scenarios to Olympic sponsors as late as Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Sponsors were told that in the case of a no-spectator scenario, all sports and opening and closing ceremonies are likely to be carried out without fans, including tickets allocated to the sponsors.

The lack of crowds may further strain the Games’ budget, which has already blown out to an estimated $15.4-billion, with ticket revenues of about $815-million expected to take a big hit.

The organising committee did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Until this week, officials had insisted they could organise the Games safely with some spectators, but a ruling party setback in a Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, which some allies of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attributed to public anger over the Olympics, had forced the change of tack, sources said.

Japan will hold a parliamentary election later in 2021 and the government’s insistence that the Games – postponed in 2020 as the virus spread around the world – should go ahead the following year could cost it at the ballot box, they said. Reuters/DM

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