TOKYO (Reuters) — The Olympics will take place without spectators in host city Tokyo, organizers said on Thursday, as a resurgent coronavirus forced Japan to declare a state of emergency in the capital that will run throughout the event.
Although widely expected, the move marked a sharp turnabout from just weeks ago, when organizers said they aimed to hold the global sporting showpiece with some spectators, and all but robs the July 23 to Aug. 8 Games of their last vestige of pomp and public spectacle.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said it was essential to prevent Tokyo, where the highly infectious Delta COVID-19 variant was spreading, from becoming the source of another wave of infections.
Venues outside the greater Tokyo metropolitan area would allow small numbers of spectators, and the policy for the Paralympics will be decided next month, the government said.
"It is regrettable that we are delivering the Games in a very limited format, facing the spread of coronavirus infections," Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said following talks between government officials, Tokyo organizers, and Olympic and Paralympic representatives.
"I am sorry for those who purchased tickets."
Once seen as a chance for Japan to stand large on the global stage after a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster a decade ago, the Games were delayed by the pandemic last year and have been hit by massive budget overruns.
Medical experts have said for weeks that having no spectators would be the least risky option, amid a sluggish program and widespread public fears that an influx of thousands of athletes and officials will fuel a fresh wave of infections.
We absolutely must avoid Tokyo being the starting point again of another spread of the infection.
–Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
Torch relays have been scaled back or taken off of public roads, and promotional events dropped. Tokyo, which had been counting on a record boom in tourism, has experienced none of the buzz and excitement that normally characterize host cities.
Tokyo's neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba will also not allow spectators at their Olympic events, the government said.
The government's drive to hold the Olympics even as the epidemic worsens has alienated much of the Japanese public and sparked concern among sponsors about a consumer backlash.
Suga said COVID-19 infections were on the rise in Tokyo, due in part to the delta variant, warning that it could hit the rest of the country.
"We absolutely must avoid Tokyo being the starting point again of another spread of the infection," he told a news conference, adding that Japan's vaccination program was making "good progress".
New daily cases in Tokyo could increase to 1,000 in July and 2,000 in August, raising the risk of hospitals in the capital region running out of beds, according to recent projections from Yuki Furuse, a Kyoto University professor working with the government's coronavirus experts group.
Slow vaccine rollout
Japan has not suffered the kind of explosive COVID-19 outbreaks seen in many other countries but has had more than 810,000 cases and 14,900 deaths.
A slow vaccine rollout has meant only a quarter of the population has had at least one shot.
The new state of emergency in Tokyo, under which restaurants will be asked to stop serving alcohol, will begin on Monday and run through to Aug 22. It was announced as the capital reported 896 new daily infections on Thursday, near highs last seen in mid-May.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, who chaired Thursday's talks after arriving in Tokyo earlier in the day, told reporters that strict measures were in place and those were successful.
Underscoring the last-minute nature of Olympic preparations, which had left sponsors frustrated, organizers presented various spectator scenarios to sponsors as late as Wednesday, according to sources.
Sponsors were told that in the case of no spectators, all sports and opening and closing ceremonies would likely be held without fans, meaning tickets allocated to sponsors could not be used.
The absence of crowds will likely further strain the Games' budget, which has already blown out to an estimated $15.4 billion, with ticket revenues of about $815 million expected to dwindle to close to zero.
Until this week, officials have insisted they could organize the Games safely with some spectators, but a ruling party setback in a Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, which some allies of Suga attributed to public anger over the Olympics, had forced the change of tack, sources said.
Japan will hold a parliamentary election this year and the government's insistence that the Games should go ahead this year could cost it at the ballot box, they said.
(Additional reporting by Rocky Swift, Eimi Yamamitsu, Elaine Lies, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Chang-Ran Kim; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski and David Dolan; editing by John Stonestreet)