Japan Official Opens Door to Canceling Olympics on Virus Surge

(Bloomberg) –A senior official in Japan’s ruling party indicated canceling the Tokyo Olympics was an option as the country struggles with a surge in coronavirus cases less than 100 days before the Games are due to begin.

Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said that if it was determined to be impossible to hold the Olympics, they would have to be canceled, in an interview with TV broadcaster TBS released Thursday.

“What would be the point of an Olympics that spread the infection?” Nikai added. Nikai is a veteran political broker whose support for Yoshihide Suga was crucial to him becoming prime minister last year.

Earlier Thursday, Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine czar and administrative reform minister, signaled the possibility of holding the Olympics without spectators, according to Kyodo News.

Japan has stepped up virus prevention measures in six regions including Tokyo and Osaka. Osaka has seen record case numbers this month, while the capital recorded 729 cases Thursday, the highest level in more than two months. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she would consider asking the government to declare a state of emergency if the current restrictions fail to slow the spread.

Japan wants to press ahead with preparations for the Olympics, top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato told reporters Thursday.

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Since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed when the pandemic broke out, Suga has repeatedly expressed determination to press ahead with the event scheduled to start July 23, flagging it as an opportunity to prove the human race has defeated the virus.

Nikai echoed these sentiments in the interview, saying the Olympics were a big opportunity for Japan, and problems in staging the event should be resolved one by one to make it a success. He later issued a statement saying he wanted the event to go well, adding it was up to officials managing the Olympics to make decisions about the Games, Kyodo News said.

But his comments on a taboo topic come as Suga prepares to fly to the U.S. to meet President Joe Biden, whose continued support will be key to keeping the plans on track.

Disputes have broken out over various aspects of the planning, including whether athletes should be given priority access to vaccines when elderly and vulnerable people have yet to be immunized. Japan has so far managed to administer only about two million doses of the vaccine to its population of 126 million people.

Overseas fans have already been excluded from the event, and officials have indicated venues may operate at half capacity. Even so, a large number of people will still converge on Tokyo. More than 60,000 athletes, coaches, national team staff, media and other essential workers are expected to travel from more than 200 countries.

Polls show most of the Japanese public don’t want the Olympics to go ahead this summer. A survey conducted April 10-11 by the Asahi newspaper found 35% of respondents said the sports spectacle should be canceled, while 34% said it should be postponed again.

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