— Published 5 July 2021

In Tokyo, cases increase and the gauge decreases


A bad sign. With 18 days to go before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games, this Monday, July 5th, the news from Japan oscillates between the rather alarming and the frankly worrying. The sanitary crisis continues to disrupt Japanese organisers’ plans. With less than three weeks to go, yesterday’s certainties are now replaced by a wave of impenetrable uncertainty.

The weekend had started well enough in the Japanese capital with reassuring news from Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the organising committee: not a single positive case was recorded among the 500 or so foreign athletes who arrived in Japan during the week. That’s good.

Then, Kyodo News agency revealed on Sunday that a COVID-19 case had been found in the Serbian rowing team. It is believed to be a rower. The athlete was immediately placed in isolation at Haneda airport. His four travel partners, also members of the Serbian delegation, were considered contact cases. They too were placed in isolation in a specialised centre not far from the airport.

The rowers and their staff were due to travel to Nanto, a town in Toyama Prefecture, for their final training camp. According to the local authorities, the Serbian preparation camp will most likely be cancelled. This is a major blow for the athletes, who could be forced to rest once their isolation is over, about a week before the start of the rowing competitions.

Another bad news is that the Japanese government is reportedly seriously considering maintaining a state of “quasi emergency” in Tokyo during the Olympic Games. It was supposed to be lifted on the evening of July 11th. But according to several government sources, it could be extended by a month, and cover the entire duration of the Games. The final decision should be taken by the Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, on Thursday, July 8th.

At issue is a new surge of COVID-19 cases in and around Tokyo. No less than 518 new cases were recorded on Sunday, July 4th. The day before, the capital had recorded 716 cases, the highest number for more than five weeks.

The so-called “quasi-emergency” state imposes restrictions on commercial activity. It requires restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 7pm and close their doors at 8pm.

As a result, the Games’ organisers are reportedly reviewing their plans for spectators on competition venues. After announcing to their great relief, on June 21st, their decision to authorise a capacity of 50% of the venues, with a maximum of 10,000 people, they are now reportedly backing down.

Several options are on the table, but the most prominent would be to lower the maximum capacity to 5,000 spectators. It also plans to favour closed sessions for all of those taking place after 9pm.

Under such a scenario, about 40% of the sessions could be held without spectators, including the two ceremonies and the athletics, football and baseball events. Several sources within the organising committee estimate that this would affect 300 out of the 750 sessions on the programme.

An official of the organising committee, quoted by Kyodo News, said: “It is better to have no spectators from the beginning than to impose a total ban after a state of emergency declaration during the Games”.

A decisive meeting is scheduled for this week, probably on Thursday, July 8th, between the organising committee, the IOC, national and local authorities. The clock will then tick down to D – 15 days before the opening ceremony.