Olympics: Bach's Japan visit postponed as virus cases soar, Suga stresses he has 'never put Games first'

TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) – International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Thomas Bach has been forced to postpone a visit to Japan, the Games’ organising committee said on Monday (May 10), as virus cases surge less than three months before the Tokyo Games.

His trip had been scheduled for May 17-18 but organisers “decided to postpone it based on various situations including the extension of a virus state of emergency” by the Japanese government.

The Japanese government and Olympic officials insist the virus-postponed July 23-Aug 8 Games can go ahead safely, although polls show most Japanese people support cancellation or another delay, which the IOC has already ruled out.

Japanese media reports said the organisers plan to reschedule Bach’s visit to June.

Japan’s state of emergency, which is less strict than blanket lockdowns in other countries, has been extended to the end of May in the hardest hit regions, including Tokyo.

Ms Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 Games, had said last Friday it would be “very difficult” to arrange the visit given the state of emergency.

Japan’s Covid-19 outbreak remains much smaller than in many countries, with around 10,800 deaths.

But its vaccine roll-out is moving slowly and some areas have seen record cases as more infectious variants drive fresh waves of contagion.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, meanwhile, was forced on the defensive on Monday, insisting in parliament he has “never put the Olympics first” and that his priority remains “the lives and health of the Japanese people”.

IOC officials, Tokyo planners and Mr Suga himself have stressed that the Games will go on in “a safe and secure” way.

Foreign spectators will not be allowed and the planners issued an elaborate set of rules last month aimed at preventing coronavirus infections.

But such arrangements have not eased public worries over the Games that were postponed last year as the coronavirus was spreading around the world.

A opinion survey conducted on May 7-9 by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily showed 59 per cent of respondents wanted the Games cancelled as opposed to 39 per cent who said they should be held. “Postponement” was not offered as an option.

Another poll conducted at the weekend by TBS News found 65 per cent wanted the Games cancelled or postponed again.

More than 300,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the Games since it was launched about five days ago. Opposition members of parliament grilled Mr Suga for hours about holding the Games under these circumstances.

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“My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population. We must first prevent the spread of the virus,” he said.

He repeated that the IOC has 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.

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