As the days count down, the opposition grows. In 10 weeks, the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics are set to get underway. Yet a state of emergency in Japan’s capital city has been extended until the end of the month, with citizens increasingly angry about staging what they believe will be a ‘superspreader’ event.
Organisers’ plans have so far appeared foolhardy rather than foolproof, with the playbooks of coronavirus protocols raising more questions than answers — the greatest of them all being: can the Olympics REALLY go ahead?
As protesters gathered outside Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium during an athletics test event yesterday, Sportsmail hears from locals, Games volunteers, public health experts and athletes about their thoughts and fears with 74 days to go.
Then Olympics are set to begin at the National Stadium in 10 weeks despite the pandemic
‘It is a recipe for disaster,’ says Games volunteer Barbara Holthus. ‘I am very scared for the country and very scared for the people of Japan. It is dangerous.’
Holthus is one of 110,000 Tokyo 2020 volunteers — a group who are feeling neglected by organisers.
While comprehensive playbooks have been published for athletes, officials and media, volunteers have received just a two-page pamphlet encouraging them to wear masks, use hand sanitiser and stay socially distanced.
They are not expected to be subjected to the same level of coronavirus testing as other participants and they will not be in the ‘bubble’, so can use public transport and visit restaurants and bars.
Hundreds of people gathered outside Tokyo's National Stadium to have their voices heard
‘I firmly believe there is significant risk that volunteers who have contact with people in the Olympic bubble, then go home to their families on public transport, could very well be the ones who are contributing to this superspreader event,’ admits Holthus.
The German expat, who is the deputy director at the German Institute for Japanese Studies, says she will decide nearer the time whether or not to continue volunteering.
But she adds: ‘From a moral standpoint, you cannot hold the Games in a pandemic, wasting money when so many people in the world are still dying. That is absolutely wrong. I still hope that somehow it’s going to be cancelled but money rules and money makes the decisions.’
What is really worrying the Japanese public is that little more than two per cent of the population have received the vaccine so far.
‘If our vaccination programme had been better then we would be happy, but I am in my 50s and not even sure if I will get a shot next year,’ says Tokyo office worker Satsuki. ‘In our mind the priority is the vaccine programme, not the Olympics. You have to ask, is it worth it?’
Locals marched, while monitored by police, holding banners reading 'Olympics kill the poor'
A recent opinion poll showed 72 per cent of Japanese citizens want the Games to be cancelled or postponed again. Meanwhile, an online petition headlined ‘Stop Tokyo Olympics’ has garnered more than 300,000 signatures since it launched last week.
‘Normally when a Games gets closer, more people get on board,’ adds Dan Orlowitz, a sports writer for the Japan Times based in Tokyo. ‘We don’t have that. Nobody is getting on board.
‘People aren’t happy because they feel that athletes are getting better treatment than Japanese citizens. There are no winners here. It sucks for all of us.
‘But based on how the organising committee and government have acted, I don’t see anything that would be serious enough for them to pull the plug.’
A large opposition is now rising with Japanese fearful of another large Covid-19 outbreak
Professor Kentaro Iwata, the head of the division of infectious diseases at Kobe University Hospital, tells Sportsmail: ‘This is not the right time and place to hold the Olympic Games. Some nations such as India are completely out of control. Many lives of people are at stake. Putting it altogether, this is not the right time to celebrate a huge human sport activity.’
Iwata shot to prominence at the start of the pandemic when he went on board the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship and posted a YouTube video highlighting the poor infection control measures. Now he is similarly critical of the measures in place for Tokyo 2020.
‘The measures are fairly sufficient to protect the athletes but the security of the surrounding people — such as coaches, drivers, media — are not really guaranteed under these measures,’ says Iwata, who believes all spectators should be banned from the Games, not just those from overseas.
It recently emerged that Tokyo 2020 organisers had asked for 500 extra nurses to leave their hospitals and volunteer at the Games, with 10,000 medical professionals needed at the event overall.
‘The nurses are laughing about it. It’s just a bad joke,’ says Iwata. ‘We are looking for more nurses for Covid-19 right now. How can you find 500 extra for the Olympics?’
Professor Kentaro Iwata does not believe this is the time and place to hold the Olympic Games
But Iwata knows money talks. He adds: ‘When we talk about the matter of should or should not, my answer is should not. But if you ask the question can or cannot, then yes, you can hold an Olympics if you just forget about the risks and completely ignore the potential dangers. They are trying to hold the Games and not minding the health of people because of the financial incentives.’
Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, fears holding the Games could set back the global fight against Covid-19.
‘You run the risk of new variants of concern emerging and of infections being taken back to other countries,’ he says. ‘My main concern with this is what happens after the Olympics.
‘It should be postponed for another year. It’s a great risk bringing people from every country in the world to the same city.’
However Koji Wada, professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo, thinks the Olympics should go ahead but be scaled back.
‘As a medical expert, it may not be difficult to say “let’s cancel”, but there are some sports, like golf and tennis, that can be done,’ he says. ‘It would be better to use the limited resources for these relatively low-risk sports.’
‘Simply unacceptable’ was the verdict of the World Players Association about the playbook of Covid-19 protocols for athletes.
However, Team GB’s top talent seemingly have no such concerns about how secure their bubble might be.
‘You are only as safe as your own behaviour,’ says Olympic champion swimmer Adam Peaty. ‘I don’t think it’s any different than being here. It’s about trusting the organisers but really it comes down to your own behaviour and making sure you are doing everything possible to not get Covid-19.’
Athletes will not have to quarantine when they arrive in Tokyo but they will have daily coronavirus tests. They must wear masks except when eating, drinking, sleeping, training or competing, and their movement will be restricted to their accommodation, training and competition venues.
‘If taking a Covid test every day will minimise the risk for everyone, I am more than happy to do that,’ says world champion gymnast Joe Fraser. ‘Everyone has to be very sensible but I definitely believe the bubbles can work.’
Team GB have asked the Government if their athletes can receive both doses of the vaccine before they go to Japan, but they also have the option of using Pfizer jabs donated to the International Olympic Committee.
British Swimming performance director Chris Spice’s biggest concern is about countries entering Japan, even though athletes must show two negative tests before they can travel.
‘What we can’t control is other countries and how they have been monitored and managed going into the Games,’ he says. ‘The challenge will be the first few days of people coming in and one of the biggest challenges will be the flight there. We are looking at all sorts of options with the British Olympic Association around flights to get the team in safely.’
Mark England is heading up Team GB’s plans. ‘We are a very conditioned team in terms of Covid mitigation,’ the chef de mission adds. ‘We are probably leading in terms of our policies.
‘I have every confidence that all 370 Team GB athletes will be on the start line fit and well and 100 per cent ready to compete.’