The Olympic flame is on its way around Japan and athletes around the world are ramping up their training programmes, but with 100 days before the delayed Tokyo 2020 games finally open, its organisers face monumental challenges.
The biggest headache is the resurgent coronavirus, with countries such as India and Brazil battling new variants and a fresh rise in cases and continuing anti-virus border restrictions have disrupted many qualifying events.
In Japan, its vaccination programme has been the slowest among developed economies, with Tokyo lurching in and out of soft lockdowns and battling a renewed spike in cases.
On Wednesday, the head of Tokyo’s Medical Association warned the rising infections could make holding the Games “really difficult”.
A surge in cases in the city of Osaka, has already forced organisers to change plans for the Olympic torch relay, which kicked off in Fukushima last month, with the event moved to a closed course at a park without spectators.
Foreign spectators have already been barred from attending the Games, which open on July 23, but the organisers have yet to decide how to handle any domestic audience.
“The situation is constantly shifting. Even in the last few months the coronavirus situation has changed massively, and it will continue to do so, and it’s very challenging to continue preparations when we don’t know what the situation will be in the future,” said Hidemasa Nakamura, the top organising committee official overseeing logistical preparations for the Games.
At a ceremony on Wednesday to mark 100 days to the Games, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she was determined to make the event a success despite the difficulties.
“The fight against an invisible enemy, the coronavirus, is behind the one-year postponement (of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021), and it has been a major ordeal for humanity,” Koike said. “I would like us to overcome the fight against the coronavirus and make the Games a memorable event.”
Athletes also seem impatient for a return to the international stage.
“These past 14 months have been very motivating for all of us,” five-time Olympic gold medallist swimmer Katie Ledecky, who represents the United States, said last week.
“Once we get there we really want to show the world all the work that we’ve put in.”
In Japan, swimmer Rikako Ikee has added a feel-good factor by winning a spot on the Olympic relay team just two years after being diagnosed with leukaemia.
The National Stadium will be the main stadium for events during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]
Organisers are promising a “safe and secure” event.
Although those participating will not be required to go through quarantine or be vaccinated, many countries have already begun to inoculate their teams and the International Olympic Committee has secured Chinese-made doses for athletes in countries without access to them.
Competitors will stay in the athletes’ village in Tokyo’s Chuo ward, which is expected to house 15,000 people from more than 200 countries and will face regular virus testing. The organisers have planned for 126,000 volunteers to shepherd athletes and spectators around the city.
“The medical system is already under strain. Our local health centre can’t possibly take care of those athletes in the village,” said Hideki Hayakawa, director of Olympic coordination unit in Chuo ward.
Hayakawa said taking care of the athlete’s medical needs and other issues are still being negotiated with the Tokyo government.
Nakamura’s team has created the first “playbook” with COVID-19 countermeasures for Olympic visitors, including rules banning visits to shops and restaurants. Athletes who break protocol could be barred from competing.
The next update to the rules is expected this month, he said.
Nakamura said that the summer heat and humidity poses another obstacle for Tokyo, and “there will be situations where it’s hard to balance both heat and coronavirus countermeasures,” such as when people in masks queue outside venues.
City official Yoichiro Hara, who oversees preparations on public roads around the venues, added that “the symptoms of heat exhaustion can be similar to those of the coronavirus.”
Hara said his team is considering whether medical staff at first-aid stations should wear full protective suits but with the difficulty of gauging the prevalence of the virus in July and no decision yet on the number of spectators, they have been unable to decide on how many stations are needed.
Some local organisers complain that information from Tokyo has come slowly and that they learn about key developments from the media. Others, like Mie Watanabe, readying the road race course in Oyama, a city 90 kilometres (56 miles) southwest of Tokyo, worry months of work could go to waste.
“The fact that we don’t know if roadside spectators will be allowed is a big problem for us – it means some of our preparations won’t be needed,” said Watanabe, listing items such as tents, toilets, and parking spaces.
Polls show most Japanese back either a further postponement to the Games or cancellation, but the numbers in favour of holding the event this summer have crept up, to about 27 percent in March, from just 11 percent in January.
“The COVID-19 situation will naturally influence the public view of the Games,” organisers said in response to questions from the AFP news agency
They noted that most Olympics face criticism before they begin but said they expect the mood to change once the competition begins.
“Every time, we are inspired by their strength and resilience and that will be truer than ever this year.”