Olympics organisers ignore medical advice in staggering fan decision

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People wearing face masks, pictured here posing for photographs next to the Olympic Rings in Tokyo.
People wearing face masks pose for photographs next to the Olympic Rings in Tokyo. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Tokyo Olympics organisers have gone against advice from top medical professionals and allowed fans to attend the upcoming Games.

Organisers announced on Monday that 50% of venue capacity will be allowed at Tokyo Olympics venues, with a cap of 10,000 spectators.

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The announcement ends months of speculation and highlights Japan's determination to push on with the Games and salvage the multi-billion-dollar extravaganza.

However there has been much public opposition and deep concern about a resurgence in Covid-19 infections.

Last week a number of top medical experts said holding the event without fans was the least risky option, while the head of a Japanese doctors' union said holding the Games could lead to the emergence of an "Olympic" coronavirus strain.

Japan has largely avoided the kind of explosive coronavirus outbreaks that have devastated other countries, but the vaccine roll-out was initially slow and the medical system pushed to the brink in some places.

Just 5% of the population is said to be vaccinated.

Organisers also announced that cheering will be prohibited, masks will be required and spectators will be requested to travel directly to venues and go straight home afterwards.

Numbers could be further reduced after July 12, depending on whether "quasi emergency" Covid-19 measures, due to expire the day before, are extended - or due to any other anti-infection measures in force at the time.

Spectators from overseas have already been banned. 

The national stadium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and due to host athletics and soccer this time, would have held 68,000 fans but will now be at a sliver of that.

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Some of the country's top health experts on Friday said banning spectators would be the least risky option.

"I am concerned not just about the increase in the number of people coming to watch the Olympics itself but also about the loosening of people's sense of urgency by hosting the Olympics with spectators," Haruka Sakamoto, a physician and researcher at Keio University, told Reuters before the decision.

Naoto Ueyama, head of the Japan Doctors Union, previously said there was a possibility that the Olympics could lead to a new strain of coronavirus.

"All of the different mutant strains of the virus which exist in different places will be concentrated and gathering here in Tokyo. We cannot deny the possibility of even a new strain of the virus potentially emerging," he told a news conference.

"If such a situation were to arise, it could even mean a Tokyo Olympic strain of the virus being named in this way, which would be a huge tragedy and something which would be the target of criticism, even for 100 years."

Seiko Hashimoto, pictured here at a press conference to decide on fan attendance at the Olympics.
Seiko Hashimoto, President of Tokyo 2020, speaks during a press conference to decide on fan attendance at the Olympics. (Photo by RODRIGO REYES MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A recent public survey revealed 65% of the public want the event postponed again or cancelled, while nearly 70% said they thought the Games would not be held safely and securely.

However events with spectators have already been happening in Japan in recent months.

Some 7,600 fans attended a Yakult Swallows pro baseball game in Tokyo on Sunday.

"Spectators will come from various places and enter the venue, possibly leading to an influx of people and clusters, so this is a concern if that happens," said 48-year-old IT worker Masahiro Gomi.

"However, it seems like sports such as baseball are taking place as usual so I think 10,000 spectators may be alright."

IOC President Thomas Bach said the vaccination rate for athletes and officials residing in the Olympic village was now "well above 80%", exceeding the IOC's initial expectations.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said he would not rule out holding the Olympics without spectators if the capital was under a state of emergency.

"In the event a state of emergency was declared then we can't rule out not having spectators," he told reporters during a tour of vaccination sites in Tokyo on Monday.

with Reuters

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