TOKYO: Fake cheers, empty seats and the sound of pounding feet: Welcome to the Tokyo Olympics in the era of COVID-19, which Japan seems determined to hold at all costs.
An athletics test event brought home the reality of hosting an Olympics during the pandemic, with athletes competing in a muted atmosphere and excitement hard to muster.
Foot strikes echoed around Tokyo’s 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium during Sunday’s (May 9) track events, with recorded crowd noises reaching a crescendo as the runners approached the finish.
A fanfare of music greeted the end of the race, before the runners quickly departed down the tunnel, leaving a smattering of media and officials in the otherwise empty stadium.
Athletes skipped quarantine but were tested daily and faced strict limits on movement. (Photo: AFP/Charly Triballeau)
“It’s weird running in a stadium with no fans,” United States sprinter Justin Gatlin said after winning the men’s 100m.
“It feels almost like a time trial or kind of like an intra-squad meet.”
The athletics meet, one of a series of test events taking place in Tokyo, involved more than 400 competitors, only nine of them from overseas.
The atmosphere could be similar at this summer’s coronavirus-delayed Games, with overseas fans already barred and organisers set to decide in June how many domestic spectators can attend, if any at all.
Although the test events are unusual, they lend weight to the argument that the Olympics can be held despite the pandemic, which has left Tokyo and other areas under a state of emergency.
There was more noise outside the stadium on Sunday, with around 100 people protesting against an Olympics that polls show a majority of Japanese oppose.
“COVID-19 infection numbers are high in Tokyo and Osaka, with many severe cases,” said protestor Takashi Sakamoto.
“I would like the money (for the Games) to be used in hospitals instead,” he told AFP.
A new poll on Monday by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily found that 59 per cent of respondents want to cancel the postponed 2020 Games, which will open on Jul 23. The poll did not offer the option of a further postponement.
A separate survey by the TBS television channel found that 37 per cent back cancellation, while 28 per cent want the Games delayed again.
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Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was forced on the defensive on Monday, insisting in parliament that he has “never put the Olympics first” and that his priority remains “the lives and health of the Japanese people”.
An online petition urging that the Games be cancelled has gathered more than 315,000 signatures since last Wednesday, but Games organisers insist that the mega-event can be held safely with strict virus rules.
“I felt beyond safe,” said Gatlin. “I’ve been tested every day, either saliva or nasal swab every morning.
“The bubble has been very successful. The only time I’ve seen the outside is when we get on the bus to go to the track.”
The rules were similarly strict at the Diving World Cup the previous weekend, which featured more than 200 divers from almost 50 countries somersaulting in silence with no fans present.
“We’ve been spitting in tubes a lot,” said British diver Tom Daley.
There were some frustrations, with Germany’s sport director Lutz Buschkow describing the restrictions as slightly claustrophobic.
“The most disappointing thing is that we can’t breathe any fresh air. That’s a really big burden for the athletes and trainers,” he told reporters.
“It would at least be nice if we got a chance to walk in the hotel garden or car park … it would be good if there was a way to fix these things.”
Gatlin said he hoped organisers might be “just a little more lenient” come the Games, but that is unlikely.
In an indication of the risks, organisers reported two COVID-19 cases during the events: A diving coach who tested positive on arrival in Japan and was quarantined, and a support member of a rowing team who tested positive during the competition.
But neither case forced a halt to events, and there were no immediate reports of additional cases being detected.
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