With 100 days to go, Tokyo scrambles to stage pandemic Olympics

TOKYO (NewsNation Now) — When Japan won the bid to host the Olympic Games eight years ago, it billed Tokyo as a reliable and secure location, contrasting it with rivals struggling with finances and political instability.

But 100 days before the start of the Olympics, the organizers face a deluge of challenges and growing uncertainty as the pandemic rages around the world, affecting decisions on everything from athlete safety to spectator numbers to ticket sales.

The biggest challenge is the resurgent coronavirus, with countries like India and Brazil battling new variants and a fresh rise in cases. In Japan, vaccinations have been the slowest among developed economies, as Tokyo has lurched in and out of soft lockdowns. Infections are on the rise, and experts worry the city is on the cusp of an “explosive” jump in cases.

As a result, foreign spectators have been barred, parts of the torch relay have been re-routed, and the organizers have yet to decide what to do with the domestic audience. This has caused major challenges for sports venues and travel agencies, already grappling with restrictions to block the virus.

“The situation is constantly shifting. Even in the last few months the coronavirus pandemic 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 organizing committee official overseeing logistical preparations for the Games.

Nakamura’s team has created the first “playbook” with COVID-19 mitigation measures, including rules banning visits to shops and restaurants. If visiting athletes break protocol, it could result in their being barred from competing.

The next update to the rules is expected this month, he said.

Nakamura said that the summer heat 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.

Tokyo government 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.”

Another challenge is the athletes’ village, expected to house 15,000 people from more than 200 countries to compete in 33 sports at 42 venues. The organizers 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 at Tokyo’s Chuo ward, where the village is located.

Hayakawa said that and other issues are still being negotiated with the Tokyo government.

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 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.

NewsNation interviewed Anastasija Zolotic, a young taekwondo star who is representing Team USA in Tokyo this summer. You can watch the interview live in the player above.

Reuters contributed to this report. Reporting by Sakura Murakami, Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka.