With fewer than 90 days to go until the Tokyo Olympics, the capital is in a state of COVID emergency.
The country this week passed a grim milestone of 10,000 deaths, less than 1 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated and thousands of COVID-19 patients are waiting for a hospital bed.
One month ago Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, renewed a pledge to make the Olympics “proof of the victory against the coronavirus”.
And organisers remain as confident as ever that the Games will go ahead here on July 23.
They have been running test events, checking everything from COVID-19 countermeasures down to the precise path that athletes will take to minimise contact inside the venues.
They have released an updated playbook they believe is the key to holding a safe and secure games.
The details include:
- Overseas athletes will have to have two PCR antigen tests within 96 hours of departure and then another one at the airport on arrival in Japan
- Once in the country they are likely to have daily tests, and as a result the 14-day quarantine will be waived so they can immediately go to training
- They will only be allowed to go to the Olympic village, training and competition venues
“The playbooks have been developed based on science, benefiting from learnings gathered during the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a joint statement from the International Olympic Committee, International Paralympic Committee, Olympic organisers, as well as the Tokyo and Japanese governments said.
“In addition to implementing the most effective tools being used throughout society, such as mask wearing, personal hygiene and physical distancing, they also draw upon the experience of hundreds of sports events that have taken place across the world during the pandemic, which have been held safely, with minimal risk to participants and the local population.”
Japan’s fourth wave of infections is making preparations even more challenging, and some athletes are growing increasingly anxious.
Athletes ‘devastated’ over not being able to compete
This weekend, Tokyo is hosting an Olympic qualification event for the diving events, but Australian athletes will not be there.
Diving Australia said the coronavirus situation in Japan meant it was too unsafe for them to risk travelling.
It has cost the team up to five places in the Games — not to mention the chance to defend an Olympic bronze medal.
Athletes took to social media to slam administrative body FINA for pushing ahead with the event.
Australia still has seven individual diving slots, and Diving Australia is hopeful that they — and all Australian athletes — will be vaccinated by the time the Games begin. As a result, it believes the actual Olympics can be held safely.
What it will be like when they get to Japan will be another story.
A lot of questions remain, including how exactly the opening ceremony will play out.
Will it just be one flag bearer and maybe a few athletes? Will there be any fans at the stadium cheering on?
President of the Organising Committee Seiko Hashimoto — a former Olympian — said she wanted the Games to provide hope in these difficult times.
“[For] the Olympic and Paralympic athletes who are practising, but the torch runners and spectators — as I have watched them I can find that there is a fact that there are so many people who are looking forward to the summer Games this year,” she said.
“On the other hand, there are people who are worried and anxious about the whole hosting of the Games, so both sides are true and we need to face up with both sides, with respect to venue capacity”.
Organisers say they will wait until June to make a decision on domestic spectators, having already banned foreign spectators earlier this year.
Nothing quite equals the scale of the Games
Olympic organisers have already got a sense of what things are like when events are held behind closed doors — the coronavirus situation in several cities has forced them to cancel torch relay legs on public roads.
But there has been only one COVID-19 case from more than 30 days of relay events throughout 17 prefectures involving thousands of participants and staff.
Organisers are satisfied with this result.
They said that since September 2020, more than 270 major international sporting competitions were safely organised with no virus super-spreader events.
“It’s the spirit of the Japanese that is greatly admired because it’s this spirit to persevere in times of hardship that the Japanese people have demonstrated … throughout their history,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.
“It’s only because of this ability of the Japanese to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible.”
However, there has been nothing at the scale of an Olympic and Paralympic Games.
And that is what has medical experts concerned.
“I think there’s no doubt that it’s a very big challenge to hold the Olympics at this time,” government health panel adviser, Professor Koji Wada, said.
“It’s not only about the situation in Japan, and I think people around the world are thinking, ‘why now?'”
Professor Wada said some sports, like golf and tennis, allow athletes to keep a safe distance.
“They have already been doing world tournaments [and] can be done with countermeasures,” he said.
But he said the big question would be about what happens with sports involving body contact that have not had major tournaments.
The ABC asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade six times whether it had any concerns for Australian athletes about the worsening coronavirus situation in Japan. It did not reply.
Professor Wada said he believed it was still possible to hold the Games and that it was important to support the athletes who have been working extremely hard.
There is a lot at stake for athletes, and for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
In the last four-year Olympic cycle, the broadcast rights accounted for almost three quarters of the IOC’s income, about $5.1 billion.
The revenue flow from rights-holding networks has been stalled by the postponement.
About 4.45 million tickets have been sold to residents in Japan, which is important revenue for Olympic organisers.
For now though, the priority from the Tokyo and national governments is on getting the virus under control.
There’s a state of emergency in place, but it’s not the kind of extreme lockdown experienced in other countries.
You can still sit in cafes and restaurants — though in this third state of emergency there is no sale of alcohol in those establishments.
The government has requested alcohol-serving establishments like bars and karaoke to close.
Hospitals across Japan are desperate to slow the spread, facing increasing pressure.
Hospitals and Olympics organisers struggling to find medical staff
At hospitals around Japan, staff are working extremely hard to increase bed capacity.
There is currently hospital capacity within Tokyo, according to Professor Wada, but he said the number of patients could fill up during the Golden Week holiday period which begins today.
In Osaka though, bed capacity is extremely limited.
“It’s heartbreaking for the medical people as they’re unable to save lives that could be saved, he said.
At the same time, this week Olympic and Paralympic organisers announced they were trying secure 500 nurses to provide medical care during the event — something that’s proving to be a major challenge.
They say it will not be at the expense of regional medical care.
“I think it’s hard to get people’s understanding in Japan to hold the Olympics while the regular medical system is being strained in Tokyo,” Professor Koji Wada said.
Doctor Shigeru Omi, the government’s top coronavirus advisor said on Wednesday that “the infection situation and strain on medical system are important factors to be considered”.
“Taking these into account it is now high time to decide what to do about the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” he told Japan’s Parliament.
Ultimately organisers are hoping to staff venues with around 10,000 nurses and doctors, but medical workers say that will be difficult because they are already strained by the pandemic.
The Organising Committee is believed to be working to designate 10 hospitals in Tokyo and 20 elsewhere in Japan to accept athletes and others who test positive.
Slow vaccine rollout frustrates the nation
While Japan has avoided an explosive spread of the virus experienced by many countries, the government has come under sharp criticism for its sluggish vaccination rollout, which has been handled mostly by local governments.
Japan began vaccinating its sizeable elderly population this month but only about 1.5 per cent of the country’s entire 126 million population has been vaccinated.
It is not even clear if Japanese athletes will receive the vaccine by the time the games begin, let alone what proportion of the public will be vaccinated come July 23.
The government has emphasised caution to build trust in the vaccine and is hopeful rates will ramp up in the next few weeks.
With just 85 days until the Games are due to begin, there is still an extraordinary amount of work still to be done to convince the Japanese that the event can — and should — go ahead.
The political costs are mounting too.
Opinion polls have consistently shown the majority of Japanese do not want the Games to go ahead this year.
Japan’s Prime Minister has to call an election this year and the clean sweep deals a significant blow to him.
The fate of the Olympics and Paralympics has the potential to make or break his leadership — a safe and successful event could cement his position.
Anything less could be disastrous.