— Published 4 March 2021

For foreign spectators, the Tokyo Games are still moving away

Would mass be said? Several Japanese media have been announcing it since Wednesday, March 3rd, citing multiple and corroborating sources: the Japanese authorities and the organising committee have reportedly stopped their decision to ban foreign spectators next summer from the Tokyo Games.

The Mainichi daily, in particular, relies on anonymous but trustworthy sources to argue that the government of Yoshihide Suga does not want to allow foreign visitors due to the risks of a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officially, the decision on whether or not to accept spectators from abroad is announced for the end of March. Seiko Hashimoto, the new President of the Organising Committee, confirmed this to the media on Wednesday March 3rd, after a video conference meeting (photo below) with Thomas Bach, IOC President Andrew Parsons, his IPC counterpart Yuriko Koike, Governor of Tokyo, and Tamayo Marukawa, Olympic Minister.

With virtual exchanges over, Seiko Hashimoto said she was hoping for a decision, followed by a public announcement, before the Olympic Torch Relay, scheduled for March 25th, from the Fukushima Prefecture. The Japanese leader said a second decision, this time regarding the number of spectators allowed at competition venues, would follow in April.

But for the Japanese media, the decision would already be made. It wouldn’t be the most optimistic. Several options have been explored in recent months. Among them, three have emerged: the Games with a reduced number of spectators, the Games with an audience exclusively made up of Japanese residents, and finally the Games behind closed doors.

In recent weeks, the majority of experts have reportedly backed the decision to ban foreign spectators. Asked by Kyodo News, Kobe University infectious diseases professor Kentaro Iwata said the reason should prompt authorities and organisers to go behind closed doors. “As the Olympics are a global event, it is very important to look at the infection situation around the world rather than just looking at what is happening in Japan”, he explains. “From a medical point of view, allowing the public would be wrong, especially spectators from abroad“.

For the Japanese professor, it will almost be impossible to control the comings and goings of Olympic tourists during their stay in Tokyo. And just as impossible to keep them away from the Japanese, in public transport, restaurants or shops.

Cautious, Seiko Hashimoto does not close the door to other scenarios. But the chair of the organising committee admitted on Wednesday March 3rd: “We really need to think long and hard about the mutant strains of the virus. Anxiety remains among the citizens. As long as there is anxiety, we will have to work to keep them safe“.

The message is clear: there is no question of taking the slightest risk of seeing Japanese public opinion turn in bulk against the authorities and the organisers. In less than 150 days, one of the priorities remains to restore the confidence of the Japanese. For that, it means keeping the borders closed to non-accredited visitors.

In his own way, Thomas Bach says much the same thing. “We’re going to focus on the essentials, which is mainly the competitions“, he suggested. “There needs to be a clear emphasis on this priority”. The athletes, therefore. With or without an audience. Logical speech.

Before the start of the pandemic, the Games organisers expected to attract 7.8 million spectators to the Olympics, then 2.3 million to the Paralympics. Ticket sales were estimated at $800 million.