Japan’s Olympics nightmare is coming true: a fast-spreading COVID-19 outbreak in the midst of the Games that the country’s leadership has been powerless to suppress.
In the months before the opening ceremony, public-health experts warned that it was foolhardy to assemble tens of thousands of people from around the world in the confined spaces of an international sporting event. Those fears have, so far, largely failed to materialize. The number of COVID-19 cases inside the Olympics has knocked a few athletes out of performance – with 259 cases in total – but had little effect on the overall Games.
Outside Olympics venues, however, the coronavirus has begun to infect people throughout Japan at an unprecedented pace, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.
And with the Olympics well under way, authorities have made no effort to strengthen the measures currently in place – measures that have been openly ignored as the Games go on.
On Sunday, authorities reported 3,058 new cases in Tokyo, after a record 4,058 infections announced Saturday.
“Tokyo is heading toward an explosive spread of infection never experienced before,” the city’s municipal government said. Hospitalizations have doubled in the past month, “and the situation is starting to place a strain on the health care system.”
Hospital administrators have expressed particular concern about rising rates of infection among young people.
Olympics organizers and Japan’s political leadership, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, have denied any link between the Olympics and the outbreak.
But Japan has yet to fully vaccinate nearly three-quarters of its population, and the coincidence of the country’s worst outbreak with the Olympics was hard to ignore. Japanese media have pointed to an “exuberant” atmosphere provoked by an Olympics that, polls show, has been popular despite widespread reservations about holding the event during a pandemic.
“There has been a clear trend of a rapid increase in infected people during the Tokyo Olympics, especially in Tokyo,” the Mainichi newspaper wrote Sunday. It accused political leadership of being trapped in a stalemate with the virus.
It’s not just Tokyo. On Monday, the city of Sapporo will enter a state of emergency, with authorities asking restaurants to stop serving alcohol and close their doors by 8 p.m. local time. The city is preparing to play host to the women’s and men’s Olympics marathons on Saturday and Sunday. The Governor of Sapporo’s surrounding Hokkaido prefecture urged a “sense of crisis.”
But in Tokyo and other centres that have been under states of emergency for the duration of the Olympics, that sense has been in short supply.
While much of the city has complied, enough holdouts remain that they do not constitute an anomaly.
Long after 8 p.m., restaurants stand with doors open and kitchens ready. Bars welcome patrons long into the night, bottles on tables visible to anyone passing by.
There are Olympics roots to that rebellion: Why stay home, some have asked, if the country has sought fit to relax its own pandemic rules to allow in tens of thousands of foreigners, some of whom have – it has subsequently become clear – been infected with the virus on arrival.
Fans have defied bans on spectators to watch road races and, Sunday, to join a crowd of hundreds on a bridge overlooking the Ariake Urban Sports Park to catch a glimpse of BMX freestyle competitors spinning in the air. More crowds gathered around the Olympic Stadium in the evening, as organizers prepared to hold one of the marquee events of the Games, the men’s 100-metre race.
Inside and outside Games venues, the Olympics have provided numerous examples of authorities turning a blind eye to the rules, which were strictly written but have been only lightly enforced. Signs still tell those at Olympic events to only clap, warning against cheering or singing. But the shouts and cheers have been unrestrained at venues across the Games, with some in the stands forgoing masks in the hot sunshine.
Consequences for violators have been few. On Sunday, authorities said they had booted two judo participants from Georgia, the Eurasian country, for sightseeing in violation of rules to constrain movements. The two men had been wearing their team colours and were seen taking pictures near Tokyo Tower. Olympic organizers allowed the men to keep their silver medals.
And police and security officials have paid little attention to those less flagrantly violating restrictions, giving eight people temporary suspensions and issuing warnings to another 10.
If authorities push through with the remainder of the Olympics, perhaps they need to cancel the Paralympics, instead, political scientist Kang Sang-jung told the TBS Sunday Morning show Sunday.
Organizers say they have yet to make decisions about the Paralympics, which are scheduled to begin Aug. 24.
But they sought to argue that the Olympics has helped to counteract the spread of the virus, rather than create an atmosphere that has encouraged people to disregard restrictions.
“Because of the high TV viewership, people are watching the Games at home,” Toshiro Muto, chief executive officer of the Tokyo Games, said Sunday.
Not everyone agrees, he acknowledged.
“There are many people,” he said, “who express many different views.”
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