Rest of Asia

Fans banned from Games venues: Olympic minister

Filed on July 8, 2021

Games to happen mostly behind closed doors.

Spectators will be banned from Olympic venues in Tokyo because of a virus state of emergency, Japan's Olympic minister announced on Thursday, meaning the Games will happen mostly behind closed doors.

"We reached an agreement on no spectators at venues in Tokyo," Tamayo Marukawa said after talks involving local and national government officials, organisers and Olympic and Paralympic chiefs.

Most Olympic competition will happen in Tokyo, but a few events will be held outside the Japanese capital. Marukawa said that, in other areas, organisers would decide on "concrete measures" for spectators after discussions with each local governor.

The public has already been asked to stay away from the marathon, which is being held in the northern Hokkaido region to beat Tokyo's summer heat.

And large parts of the torch relay traversing the country have also been held behind closed doors because of virus concerns.

The spectator decision comes after Japan's government said on Thursday that Tokyo would be under a virus state of emergency from July 12 to August 22.

The measure is significantly looser than harsh lockdowns seen elsewhere, but comes with infections rising in the capital and concerns about the increased prevalence of the Delta variant.

But it signals a growing concern about the current rate of infections, and appears to have piled pressure on Olympic organisers who had hoped to have up to 10,000 local fans in venues after barring overseas spectators.

Organisers met on Thursday evening with local and national government officials and Olympic and Paralympic chiefs to take what Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto termed a "very difficult decision".

"We reached an agreement on no spectators at venues in Tokyo," Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa said after the talks.

Most Olympic events are being staged in Tokyo, but some -- including surfing, football, baseball and the marathon -- will take place outside the capital.

Marukawa said a decision on spectators at events outside Tokyo would be taken in consultation with the governors of each region.

The ban comes after Suga announced the new emergency measures, which he said would not interfere with holding the Games.

"We will host the Games under the state of emergency," he told reporters.

"I think we can realise a safe and secure Games by taking these measures."

International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach, who arrived in Japan earlier on Thursday, said he would "support any measure which is necessary to have a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games for the Japanese people and all participants".

Organisers are at pains to insist the Games can go ahead and will be safe for local residents and Olympic participants.

But they face the reality of rising infections, with Japan's minister in charge of the virus response Yasutoshi Nishimura warning earlier on Thursday that the Delta variant now accounts for around 30 percent of cases in the capital.

"This is expected to expand further," he warned.

Japan has so far recorded around 14,900 deaths, despite avoiding harsh lockdowns, but the government has been criticised over the slow start to its vaccination programme.

And there are concerns that the Delta variant could produce a new wave that might quickly overwhelm local medical resources.

Olympic organisers have drawn up extensive measures including daily testing for athletes and limits on their movement that they say will keep the public and Games participants safe.

While vaccination is not required to participate in the Games, Bach said Thursday that 85 percent of arriving Olympic delegations would be inoculated, and almost 100 percent of IOC staff and members.

Despite the measures, Tokyo 2020 is struggling to build momentum and enthusiasm for the Games as the final countdown begins.

A torch relay that was supposed to stoke excitement as it travelled nationwide has been taken off public roads in much of the country over virus risks, and even its legs in the capital will now be held without spectators.

And fans have been asked to avoid the route of the Olympic marathon when it is run in northern Hokkaido.

Polls show most Japanese would prefer the Games be postponed again or cancelled outright, though opposition has softened in recent weeks.

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