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Countdown to the Olympic Games Begins — But is Tokyo Covid-Safe?

Tokyo Olympic Games
Credit: International Olympic Committee/Greg Martin

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) kicked off the final countdown to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Wednesday.

“Now the real countdown has started and, comparing it to an athlete, it is the final lap. So, we need to get ready for the final sprint – with regard to the organization, but also with regard to the athletes. Now everybody has a clear vision of these Games,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.

“The message to the athletes is ‘Here we go!’ It is just 100 days. These final days of preparations – I know from my own experience – are very, very important,” he explained.

In Japan, local authorities also marked the 100-day countdown by unveiling the Olympic rings symbol for this year’s iteration of the Olympics in Tokyo.

Coronavirus threat to Tokyo Olympic Games

Even as Tokyo unveiled installations featuring the Olympic rings and mascots to celebrate the 100-day milestone, organizers face monumental challenges as the virus’ variants surge around the world.

The Japan Times admitted earlier in April that the situation was “grim,” with a paltry 1% of Japanese currently vaccinated, as opposed to the stellar figures coming out of the UK, Israel and the United States, where at least half of the populace has had at least one dose of a coronavirus inoculation.

In Japan, which has no domestic coronavirus vaccine, the nationwide vaccination of all medical personnel began way back in February. By now, the government planned that senior citizens — who make up a substantial percentage of the population — would start to receive the vaccine.

Extremely low vaccination rate, questions on future vaccine supply

The U.S.-based Pfizer and Moderna firms, along with UK-based AstraZeneca, were to be the only pharmaceutical companies providing the vaccine to Japan — but the Moderna shot is still undergoing tests in Japan and it is unknown when it might be approved for use.

As of March 1 there were only 1400 boxes, representing 1.35 million to 1.6 million shots, in the entire country. “At this rate,” one doctor told Playboy in an interview, “it will take 16 years to get everyone fully vaccinated.”

Japan’s grand plan to have 36 million people fully vaccinated by the end of June is “Impossible,” according to an unnamed Japanese medical journalist also interviewed for the Playboy article.

No overseas fans at Olympics in 2021

Organizers have barred overseas fans and postponed test events, but they insist Olympic preparations are still on track.

Cancellation is “certainly not” on the table, International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president John Coates told reporters on Wednesday, saying “The Tokyo Games will be the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Japan won’t require Olympic participants to be vaccinated, but the IOC is encouraging inoculations and has secured Chinese-made doses for athletes in countries without access to them.

COVID-19 surges across Japan have forced the government to tighten restrictions only weeks after they were lifted — and on Wednesday, the head of Tokyo’s Medical Association warned the rising infections could make holding the Games “really difficult.”

The governor of the western Ehime region announced the public torch relay will be scrapped in the city of Matsuyama, citing the “extreme pressure” on local medical services from the rising number of cases.

Tens of thousands of athletes and other Olympic participants arriving from overseas will be able to skip quarantine, and are not required to show proof of vaccination.

But athletes will be asked to limit their movements, stay only at the Olympic village during their events and undergo regular virus testing.

Olympic flame

The Olympic flame handover ceremony for the Tokyo Games was held without spectators  in Athens more than a year ago.

The flame, which is a symbol of peace and hope, arrived in Japan a few days later. Since then, it has been kept in a secure location in Tokyo.

The organizers say that they have a team of experts maintaining the flame in its special lantern in accordance with IOC guidelines.

They insist that it is very unlikely the flame will go out. But, as with every Olympic Flame, they also keep back-up flames which were also lit from the original flame in Ancient Olympia.

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