Japan will limit spectators at the Olympic Games to 50 per cent of a venue’s capacity capped at 10,000 people, a move that flies in the face of the country’s official medical advice.
The decision to push ahead with spectators at the games, even though most of the Japanese public will not be vaccinated against Covid-19, suggests prime minister Yoshihide Suga is willing to risk some extra infections in order to deliver a successful Olympics.
It marks a rejection of last week’s request by Shigeru Omi, the doctor leading Japan’s Covid-19 response, for organisers to hold the Olympics behind closed doors.
“We have prepared for the last eight years and we would like to make these games successful,” said Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020, in a press conference on Monday.
She said there were many examples of spectators attending sports events during the pandemic, both in Japan and abroad, and insisted the event could be held in safety.
Last week, Omi warned that the televised spectacle of stadiums full of spectators would send a contradictory message to the Japanese public that it was safe to relax their precautions against Covid-19.
If the Olympics were held with spectators, Omi said there should be tighter restrictions than for other sporting events, and they should be limited to Tokyo residents to avoid an increase in people travelling.
But while the organisers appeared to reject Omi’s requests, they said the rules could be changed if the coronavirus situation worsened.
“In the event a state of emergency is implemented at any time after July 12, limitations on spectator numbers will be based on the content of the state of emergency,” said Hashimoto. That could yet mean holding the games behind closed doors.
A state of emergency was lifted in Tokyo and Japan’s other big cities at the weekend with new nationwide Covid cases running at about 1,500 a day. Doctors are worried about a fresh wave of the disease, especially as the Delta variant becomes more prevalent.
The Olympics are due to start on July 23. Japan has so far given a first dose of vaccine to sixteen in every 100 people, with priority going to medical personnel and then the elderly.
Only one in ten Olympic events will be affected by the 10,000 maximum on capacity, said Hashimoto. That will include showpiece athletics finals in the Olympic stadium.
Restricting spectator numbers will mean a financial hit to the organisers. Hashimoto said ticket revenue would be less than half of the budgeted ¥90bn ($820m).
She said the organisers, the city of Tokyo and the Japanese government would discuss how to fill the gap in the budget. However, according to the contracts underpinning the games, the burden is likely to fall on Tokyo taxpayers.