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As Japan questions Olympics, IOC stands firm on Tokyo Games with plea for 'patience' — and vaccines

Henry Bushnell
·4-min read
People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk on the Odaiba waterfront as Olympic rings is seen in the background in Tokyo, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Japanese citizens are growing less and less confident in the rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

In November, as International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach prepared to visit Olympic organizers in Tokyo, a local reporter joined an IOC conference call and asked Bach, bluntly: “Do you want to recommend [that] they cancel the Olympic Games?”

“No,” Bach said, and then he paused to let that one word resonate. In fact, most Olympic officials were feeling increasingly confident that the Games would happen in 2021.

But it was clear, and has since become increasingly clear, that Japanese citizens are questioning the Tokyo Olympics. Opinion polls show that somewhere between 70 and 80% of the public don’t think the Games should happen this summer. Amid COVID-19 spikes in the host country, a senior government official told the Times of London: “Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen. ... The consensus is that it’s too difficult.”

Against this backdrop, Bach met with global media on Wednesday. And his message was straight-faced and firm. "It's not about whether the Games are taking place,” he said. “It's about how."

When told by a Japanese reporter that the IOC “needs to show a clear criteria for the possible cancellation, to regain people’s support in Japan,” Bach dug in, and called the Japanese concerns “speculation.”

"Our task is to organize Olympic Games,” he said, “not to cancel Olympic Games."

Olympic COVID ‘playbooks’

The IOC’s problem, from a public communication standpoint, is that it hasn’t said “how” the Olympics will happen. A 53-page document that was sparsely distributed in December outlines an “interim summary” of COVID countermeasure, but very few specifics. “Concrete measures,” it says — testing, surveillance and more — “will be decided by next spring.”

Now, the IOC says it will present a “playbook” of countermeasures to athletes and national Olympic committees in early February. The playbook is expected to detail how thousands of athletes and tens of thousands of visitors in total will enter and depart Japan without encountering major coronavirus risks.

But Bach called it a “work in progress.” He said he himself hasn’t yet seen the “playbook,” and said they’re “under daily review."

"Please accept and understand that we need some patience,” Bach said.

IOC wants vaccine priority for athletes

Meanwhile, the IOC has begun politicking for access to vaccine doses.

“When vaccination is made available to a broader public, the IOC calls for Olympic and Paralympic teams to be vaccinated given their role as ambassadors of their [national Olympic committees] and given the role of sport ‘to promote safe sport as a contributor to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities,’” it said in a statement Tuesday.

Bach has said for months now that the IOC and Olympic athletes “won’t jump the queue” — that front-line healthcare workers and at-risk populations should be vaccinated before young, healthy sportswomen and sportsmen.

But once they have been, the IOC says it will work with Olympic officials in over 200 countries and territories to help athletes get vaccinated, “in line with national immunization guidelines,” before the Tokyo Games.

“The IOC will send a letter to the [national Olympic committees] asking them to actively engage with their respective governments on this matter and to report back to the IOC in early February 2021,” it said in the statement.

Spectator attendance still up in the air

The timeline for all of this remains up in the air. Olympic officials have often pegged early-spring as a time when decisions will have to be made.

"With regard to deadlines, it's different for the different topics,” Bach said.

He gave the example of fans, who can’t just be invited the day before the Opening Ceremony. Ticketing and screening processes are complex. “We cannot wait forever,” Bach said.

When asked whether he could guarantee that fans would be in attendance in some form: "This I cannot tell you. Because our priority is to ensure a safe Olympic Games. We will do whatever is needed to ensure a safe Olympic Games."

Amid the growing Japanese concern, a Florida official said he wrote to the IOC offering Florida as an alternative host site. Bach said he hadn’t seen the letter, which further cements his position of hosting the games in Tokyo.

"From a human perspective, I can understand everybody who has concerns about Olympic Games when he or she is living in a lockdown, and does not know whether you can go to a restaurant or to see your friends or your family,” Bach said. “In these circumstances, it is extremely difficult to imagine Olympic Games. So there, personally, I have all understanding. But the responsibility of the government and of the IOC is to look beyond this situation."

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