by Sara Hussein
Olympic organisers meet Saturday for talks expected to bar overseas fans from this summer’s pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, in a bid to reduce virus risks and win over a sceptical public.
The move would be an unprecedented decision that will further scale back once-grand ambitions for the pandemic event.
When the decision to postpone the Games was taken last year, officials said the delay would allow them to hold the event as “proof of humanity’s triumph over the virus.”
But instead, the Games are shaping up to be a largely television event for most of the world, with little of the international party atmosphere that usually characterises an Olympics.
Saturday’s meeting will bring together officials from the International Olympic Committee, International Paralympic Committee, Tokyo 2020 organisers, the Tokyo city government and Japan’s government.
Their decision has been widely anticipated in recent weeks, with leaks suggesting organisers believe a bar on overseas fans is the only option as they work to make the Games safe despite the pandemic.
The IOC has reportedly sought limited exemptions for some overseas guests, but the rules are likely to be strict.
Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto has admitted it will be “difficult” for even the families of foreign athletes to attend.
Just how many domestic spectators will be in venues this summer has yet to be decided.
Organisers originally suggested they would rule on that by April, but IOC chief Thomas Bach has said the decision could be pushed closer to the July 23 opening ceremony.
Whatever they decide, there’s no doubt that barring overseas fans will help make the Games a very different event from years past.
“It has never happened that foreign spectators were banned from entering the host country at the time of the Games, even during the Spanish flu at the time of the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games,” said Jean-Loup Chappelet, a Lausanne-based professor who specialises in the Olympics.
“Even for Athens 1896, the Cook agency organised ‘packages’ for those who wanted to attend the first modern Games.”
When the Games were postponed last year, organisers and Japanese officials had hoped that the pandemic would be receding by spring 2021.
They proclaimed the event would mark the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and a celebration of the end of a global crisis.
But even with vaccines rolling out in much of the world, the virus continues to cause havoc, and the narrative from Olympic officials looks to be changing.
In an interview last week, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto acknowledged that the virus situation in the Japanese capital remained “extremely serious” and talked about the Games as offering “solidarity” during a difficult time.
Japan’s public remains sceptical about the safety of the event, with a majority opposed to holding it this year and favouring either cancellation or further postponement.
But organisers and Olympic officials have said neither of those are options, and they have put together virus rulebooks they say will ensure the Games are safe regardless of the pandemic.
The International Olympic Committee is also encouraging athletes to get vaccinated, even securing a supply of doses from China to offer to those in countries without advanced inoculation programmes.
The year-long delay and virus safety countermeasures have helped balloon Tokyo 2020’s already mammoth budget to an eyewatering 1.64 trillion yen ($15 billion), making the Games potentially the most expensive summer Olympics in history.
And any decision to bar overseas spectators is likely to put a new hole in organisers’ budget, with an estimated 900,000 tickets reportedly already sold to fans abroad.