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World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said on Friday he is confident the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead as planned this year with COVID-19 vaccines giving athletes greater access to training and competitions in the build-up.

The Olympics were postponed in March last year following the start of the pandemic but Coe said he believes athletes are in a different frame of mind heading into the July 23-Aug. 8 Games.

“Firstly, there’s the vaccine and we were a long way away from even thinking about that at this stage last year,” the Briton told Reuters.

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“I know at this stage [last year] athletes were beginning to find it really difficult to maintain their training regimes and competitions were beginning to slide off the radar screen. Now they’re having greater access to training and competitions.”

Critics of Japan’s plan to hold the Olympics despite a fourth wave of coronavirus infections submitted a petition on Friday signed by 350,000 people over nine days calling for the Games to be cancelled.

“I can understand bystanders looking at this and being fearful – but that just reinforces for us the need to make sure people do understand sport actually is good at this,” Coe said.

“I want to reassure the Japanese people that we take this seriously, with a rigorous focus on the COVID protocols. We’ve staged events with crowds in many places in the world … done it successfully and haven’t produced a great spike in numbers.

“We recognize sport does play a really important part in our communities. There are billions of people across the globe that want the Games to take place, the athletes and broadcasters want the Games to take place.”

Coe said the Games would have a different feel with fans not allowed in from abroad, while a decision on Japanese-based spectators has yet to be made.

“Everybody wants stadiums full of noisy, passionate people – but if the Games have to take place without crowds, or certainly with fewer people in stadiums, the athletes, the world of sport, accepts that now,” Coe added.

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