The prospect of the Olympics being forced behind-closed-doors has increased significantly after chief organisers said spectators are not a “must have”.
Organisers had previously played down fears that the Games would take place without fans, despite refunds being offered for the rearranged event. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach stepped back from promising crowds on Thursday, saying organisers must be “flexible” amid Covid-19 surges.
Senior IOC member Dick Pound added to the fresh uncertainty, telling Kyodo News: “The question is, is this a ‘must have’ or ‘nice to have’? It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must have.”
Their comments come after Sir Keith Mills, the former chief executive of London 2012, suggested it is “unlikely” that the Games will take place at all.
With the world in a race against time to get vaccinated, close to 80 per cent of Japanese people believe the Olympics, already postponed by a year because of the pandemic, should be delayed again. The logistical minefield has been underlined by chaos at the much smaller Australian Open, where 72 players are confined to their hotel rooms in Melbourne for 14 days.
Bach expressed optimism ahead of Saturday’s six-months-to-go mark that the Games will go ahead in some form, however. “We have at this moment no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on July 23,” he said. “This is why there is no plan B and this is why we are fully committed to make these games safe and successful.”
Pound, the outspoken longest-serving member of the IOC, also reaffirmed his hope that holding the Games in some capacity will be possible. “Nobody can guarantee [that the Olympics will go ahead as planned]. But I think there is a very, very, good chance that they can, and that they will,” he said.
Japan has been less severely hit by the pandemic than many other advanced economies, but the recent surge in cases moved it to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and major cities.
Taro Kono, Japan’s administrative and reform minister, became the first figure within government to voice doubt, saying the Games “could go either way” last week after a state of emergency was extended beyond the Tokyo region.
The IOC expects just 6,000 athletes at the opening ceremony, down from an initial figure of about 11,000 from 200 nations, the Yomiuri newspaper reports.