TOKYO: IOC chief Thomas Bach urged the Japanese people to get behind the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday as the first coronavirus case hit the Games Village, prompting fresh jitters about the health risks posed by the giant event.
Bach, who has faced scattered protests since arriving in Japan, appealed to the public to throw their support behind the athletes despite fears of a spike in cases as thousands of international visitors arrive.
The International Olympic Committee president said he was “very well aware of the scepticism” surrounding the postponed 2020 Games, which have attracted low opinion-poll ratings for months.
“I appeal to the Japanese people to welcome these athletes here for the competition of their life,” Bach said, insisting the Tokyo Olympics were safe, calling them the “most restrictive sports event… in the entire world”.
“I would like once more to ask and to invite the Japanese people, humbly, to welcome and support the athletes from around the world,” he added.
Bach’s plea comes just six days before the opening ceremony for the Games, which will take place in biosecure “bubble” conditions and largely without fans.
It also coincided with the first case in the Olympic Village, concerning an unnamed person who is now in isolation.
However, Bach said just 15 people had tested positive out of 15,000 arrivals in July, citing it as proof that the strict anti-coronavirus measures, including daily tests for athletes, are working.
He also held the door open to a possible return of fans if conditions improve, citing a communique issued after talks between the IOC, International Paralympic Committee, Tokyo 2020, Japanese government and Tokyo authority.
“We will keep monitoring the anti-Covid developments. And if the circumstances should change, then we do have another immediate five parties meeting to address this with the relevant anti COVID-19 measures,” said Bach.
– Athletes ‘probably very worried’ –
Anti-Olympics protesters held up placards during Bach’s visit to Hiroshima on Friday and about 30 demonstrators were blocked by police outside Saturday’s IOC executive board meeting at a luxury hotel in Tokyo.
A welcome reception for Bach on Sunday will be attended by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and 40 guests, according to reports.
But Bach said “we are just guests” at the event, which will take place while Tokyo remains under a state of emergency.
“We are the guests of the organising committee for this invitation and we trust that the organising committee will follow all the regulations and restrictions,” he said.
Earlier, Games chief Seiko Hashimoto tried to reassure athletes arriving in Japan, admitting they are “probably very worried”.
Several competitors have expressed concern over conditions at the Olympics, which are marked by ubiquitous temperature checks, hand sanitiser and daily testing.
Organisers pledged full transparency about cases in the Village, and urged people taking part in the Games to stick by the anti-coronavirus rules.
“Athletes who are coming to Japan are probably very worried. I understand that,” Hashimoto said. “That is the reason why we need to make full disclosure.”
Prime minister Suga said he hoped the Olympics would bring excitement, even if they are taking place behind closed doors.
“Even without spectators, I think it is important to bring excitement… to people in Japan and the world,” he said on Nippon TV.