International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Wednesday called Tokyo the “best prepared Olympic city in history,” even as Japan considers a state of emergency while it wrestles with a surge of COVID-19 cases and a slow vaccine rollout less than three months before the Games.
Bach reaffirmed the IOC’s intention to forge ahead with staging a safe Tokyo Olympics this summer during a virtual press conference on Wednesday, following its executive board meeting. He said the IOC is taking “all the right efforts to minimize the risk,” basing its confidence on the diligence of Japanese leaders, the scientific advice it is receiving and examples set by other big sporting events staged during the pandemic – like golf’s Masters that was recently held in Augusta, Ga.
“Look at the Augusta Masters. They took place, international event, no problem. Great Japanese victory,” Bach said, referring to Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, the first PGA Tour golfer from Japan to win a Major.
“Why should Japan not be in a position to celebrate their Olympic gold medallists at home at such an event?”
The Tokyo Olympics is on a far bigger scale – it will include some 11,000 athletes in a two-week event across 34 venues, then the Paralympics will welcome 4,400 more competitors.
Bach said the IOC was aware that Japanese leaders could soon declare a state of emergency for the Tokyo area as new COVID-19 case numbers surge. Bach said as he understood it, such a measure would be pro-active and just for a limited time, to contain the spread of the virus during Japan’s annual Golden Week, a holiday period that takes place in late April and early May.
Bach faced several media questions about vaccines Wednesday – and specifically on the fairness of holding an Olympics at a time when some countries will be way ahead of others in vaccinating their citizens – and their Olympic athletes. He said the IOC has not changed its stance on making vaccines mandatory to participate in Tokyo.
“You cannot make this now compulsory two months before the Games,” Bach said.
He said, however, that the IOC is trying to help the various national Olympic committees which may be unable to get vaccines for their athletes. He claimed that some countries’ Olympic committees are even coming to the aid of others.
Bach addressed the cancellation of some Olympic qualifying competitions across several sports due to the pandemic, which will make it difficult or impossible for some athletes to get a fair shot at qualifying for Tokyo.
“This is, of course, a very difficult situation for many athletes,” Bach said. “All I can do is ask for their understanding and for their respect.”
Bach said the second edition of the Tokyo playbooks will be available by the end of April – the newest information about what life will be like at the Games. These specific guidebooks for athletes and other participants will detail the latest restrictions and protocols regarding travel, venues and the village during the Olympics and Paralympics. The World Health Organization is helping compile the playbooks.
“The Olympic Village will be a different Olympic village, yes. But it will be a pretty safe place,” Bach said.
He said he draws optimism from other international sporting events that operated in bubble-like settings and succeeded.
“There have been 340 world championships and World Cups being organized with a participation of, cumulatively, more than 40,000 athletes, and none of these events has been a virus spreader, and they did not even have the benefit of the vaccine,” Bach said. “In Tokyo, we will have, on top of this, the benefit of the vaccine and again we can be very confident that it will be a high number of people being vaccinated.”
Bach said his upcoming trip to Japan is “still in the planning stages” and couldn’t provide any date or specifics.
Foreign fans had already been barred from entering Japan for the Games, and now a decision about domestic spectators is also up in the air. Tokyo’s organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said Wednesday that a decision on venue capacity – or if there will be any fans at all – may be delayed until June.
The Summer Olympics are scheduled to open in Tokyo July 23 to Aug. 8, with the Paralympics taking place afterwards, from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.