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A Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay runner takes part in a celebration at Shiba Park on July 22, 2021, after the relay on a public road was cancelled due to the pandemic.

NAOKI OGURA/Reuters

Olympic organizers envisioned the Tokyo Games as a moment of triumph – for humanity over the pandemic and for Japanese leadership over the doubts of a skeptical public.

But officials spent the day before the opening ceremony apologizing for a Holocaust joke made by the man who was, until Thursday, the creative director of the opening ceremony, even as they sought to play down the number of COVID-19 cases among Olympic participants, which is nearing triple digits. Meanwhile, protesters and petitions continued to demand the cancellation of an international sporting event that has already staged its first matches.

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“There have been so many scandals,” said Shoji Sadamitsu, 68, a retired elementary-school teacher who joined a small demonstration in Yokohama on Thursday, with local educators rallying behind a sign that read: “Human life is more important than the Olympics and Paralympics.”

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In the latest scandal, the organizers dismissed Kentaro Kobayashi, the director of the opening and closing ceremonies, little more than 24 hours before the inaugural performance, which might otherwise have been used to galvanize a disaffected public. Mr. Kobayashi was fired after a video surfaced of a 1998 comedy act in which he said, “Let’s play Holocaust.”

He departed on the heels of the resignation this week of Keigo Oyamada, a composer for the opening ceremony, amid public outrage over comments he made in the mid-1990s describing how he bullied classmates with disabilities, including forcing a boy to eat his own feces. Mr. Oyamada had provided roughly four minutes of music for the ceremony. The organizers pledged to replace his contributions.

On Tuesday, children’s author Nobumi withdrew from an Olympics cultural event after public criticism over previous comments that seemed to discriminate against children with congenital disorders.

And this week’s furor emerged after the high-profile controversy this year over remarks by Yoshiro Mori, the previous head of the Games organizing committee, who told a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee that women talked too much. He later resigned.

The Tokyo Games had chosen “Unity in diversity” as its tagline.

“It’s a real crisis for Japan and has really shone a spotlight on the underside of Japan,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “What it has underscored is how far out of touch with global norms and values Japan’s aging ruling elite is.”

Countries seek to play host to the Olympics as a way of showing off their best attributes. The Tokyo Games have done the opposite, Prof. Kingston said. “When you think of Japan, don’t you think of good organization? Good logistics? Good implementation? Attention to detail?” But for these Olympics, “where are those virtues?”

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On Thursday, a grim Toshiro Muto, the chief executive officer of the Tokyo Games, acknowledged that “negative incidents” were souring the atmosphere organizers had hoped to achieve. “We are actually facing a lot of challenges right now,” he said. Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the organizing committee, read an apology from Mr. Kobayashi.

“How we are going to handle the ceremonies is currently being discussed,” she said. She nonetheless sounded an optimistic note: “I hope that this Games is going to be full of hope and it will unite the world.”

Even without the pall of resignations, pandemic restrictions had already threatened the energy of the opening ceremony. It will be held in the new Olympic stadium, with a capacity of 68,000. But most spectators have been banned from the Games to reduce the risk of an outbreak. On Thursday, organizers said they expected 950 people to attend the opening ceremony. Domestic television audiences may also be thin.

“Right now, I understand some people – many people – do not even want to watch the ceremony,” Ms. Hashimoto said.

Just 2,000 people came out to watch some of the first soccer games at Miyagi Stadium on Wednesday. The stadium is among the few venues outside Tokyo that has allowed spectators, but the Wednesday crowd fell far short of the 10,000 people that organizers said they would allow into the stands.

The pandemic has only added doubts among a Japanese public that, opinion polls show, has maintained staunch opposition to holding the Olympics. In the past week, organizers of two petitions have submitted more than half a million signatures calling for the cancellation of the Games. One petition called it a “historic outrage.”

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“It’s insane to go ahead with the Olympics under the current circumstances, where we’re facing the spread of the novel coronavirus and other challenges,” sociologist Chizuko Ueno, one of the organizers of a petition submitted to Tokyo authorities on July 19 with 139,000 signatures, told journalists this week.

Eighty-seven Olympic participants have now tested positive for COVID-19 – 20 by airport arrival testing and 67 at regular screening tests for athletes, media, officials and volunteers. But those cases are from 32,000 arrivals and 96,000 screening tests – “an extremely low ratio,” said Hidemasa Nakamura, the main operations centre chief for the Games.

But the sour public mood is so potent that Toyota, one of the key Japanese sponsors, has pulled Olympics-themed advertisements in its home market and cancelled plans for its president to attend the opening ceremony.

In Yokohama on Thursday, shop clerk Miho Asano, 31, said that if it were in her power, she would still cancel the Olympics. “But I guess no one can stop it any more,” she said.

Instead, people in Japan will live with an event that promised pride – but has so far brought shame.

“It’s embarrassing that this is known around the world,” Ms. Asano said.

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On the eve of the Tokyo Games, organizers fired the creative director of the opening ceremony over a joke he made about the Holocaust, while media reported that former prime minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch advocate for the Tokyo Games, would skip the showpiece event. Reuters

With a report from Naoko Mikami

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