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Japanese prime minister defends stance on Olympics amid continued public concerns

Under scrutiny: Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga stated that he has never "put the Olympics first", as public pressure builds for cancelling the Games amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga stated that he has never “put the Olympics first”, as an opinion poll showed nearly 60 per cent of the nation’s population want the Games cancelled with less than11 weeks left before they are due to commence.

Japan has extended a state of emergency in host city Tokyo as well as three other areas until the end of May and is struggling to contain a surge in Covid-19 cases, raising further concerns about whether the Games — scheduled for July 23 to August 8 — should go ahead. The country’s vaccination rate is also the lowest among wealthy nations.

International Olympic officials, Tokyo planners and Suga himself have insisted the Games will go on in “a safe and secure” way. Foreign spectators will not be allowed and organisers have already issued a set of rules and restrictions aimed at preventing coronavirus infections.

However, the measures have not eased public pessimism or concerns over the Games that were postponed last year due to the pandemic.

An opinion survey conducted last week by local media 59 per cent of respondents wanted the Games cancelled altogether as opposed to 39 per cent who said they should be held. Another “postponement" was not offered as an option.

A separate poll conducted at the weekend by a different news agency found 65 per cent wanted the Games cancelled or postponed again. More than 300,000 people have also signed a petition to cancel the Games since it was launched a week ago.

Opposition Members of Parliament questioned Suga for hours about holding the Games under such circumstances.

In apparent acknowledgement of the public concern about holding the Olympics, no matter what, Suga, when asked if the Games would go ahead even if infections spiked, replied: "I've never put Olympics first.“

He said: "My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population. We must first prevent the spread of the virus."

Suga has said the International Olympic Committee will have the final say on the Games and the Government's role was to take steps so they can be held safely. Several test events with foreign athletes have been successfully held, most recently on Sunday when hundreds of athletes, including the United States sprinter Justin Gatlin, participated at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.

A visit by IOC head Thomas Bach scheduled for May 17 and 18, has been cancelled “in the light of the extension of the state of emergency last week and various circumstances we are facing”, Tokyo 2020 organisers said in a statement.

It added: “We will continue to monitor the Covid-19 situation in Japan and other relevant factors and will rearrange his visit to Japan as soon as possible.”

Top Olympic official John Coates said on Saturday that while public sentiment in Japan about the Games “was a concern”, he could foresee no scenario under which the sporting extravaganza would not go ahead.

However, on Sunday, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka said that even though she had waited her whole life to take part in the Olympics, the risk of holding the Tokyo Games should be carefully discussed.

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Published May 13, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated May 12, 2021 at 6:13 pm)

Japanese prime minister defends stance on Olympics amid continued public concerns

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