BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — Communities the length and breadth of Japan that had signed up to act as “host towns” for foreign athletes in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer are expressing disappointment that the coronavirus pandemic has wrecked this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their residents.
And that includes the communities that are due to host athletes from the Guam Olympic team.
Hundreds of cities and towns have been making meticulous plans for the arrival of foreign athletes for training and acclimatization camps ahead of the Games, which are scheduled to open on July 23, and the Paralympics, which start on Aug. 24.
Now, however, question marks hang over where athletes will be able to go, who they will be able to interact with and whether they will be able to visit communities that have been preparing for their arrival for years. There are even concerns over whether the largest sporting event to be staged in Japan will even go ahead.
“People are really disappointed because we have all been looking forward to this for years,” said a spokesman for the prefectural government of Fukuoka, in southern Japan. The local authority has been drawing up plans for four towns — Yanagawa, Miyama, Miyako and Chikujo — to host athletes from 15 Oceania countries, including Guam.
Competitors who are due to take part in the wrestling events, track and field, swimming and table tennis were due to be based in the prefecture in the run-up to the opening ceremony, but the local authority says it can only wait for further information and advice from the national government and the International Olympic Committee.
“Right now, we are preparing for acceptance in cooperation with the national government and the Oceania National Olympic Committee,” the official said.
The Guam judo team is similarly due to stage a training camp in Ryugasaki City, in Ibaraki Prefecture north of Tokyo, but that is also in doubt.
Given Japan’s ongoing problems with the coronavirus, the outlook is not positive.
Japan has extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas to June 20. The nation is experiencing a fourth wave of infections and a slow vaccination rollout.
Two more prefectures, Aichi and Fukuoka, were added to the state of emergency list in May.
“For these communities, it is a major disappointment,” the prefectural official said. “These towns have been planning cultural events and festivals with the foreign athletes and they were going to go to schools to train with local children.”
Now, the priority is to ensure the health of both local people and the athletes, so new guidelines are being implemented that strictly limit any sort of interactions between the two sides. Other communities have decided that given the elevated risk of infection, the best course of action is to have the athletes effectively quarantine in their hotels and use dedicated bus services to take them to and from their training facilities.
According to the government, more than 500 municipalities across Japan initially signed up to act as host for athletes, parathletes taking part in the subsequent Paralympics and sporting officials, as a way of spreading the benefits of the Olympics beyond the confines of Tokyo. The aim was to share unique cultural occasions and build bridges between communities that might never otherwise have the opportunity.
With only weeks to go before the opening ceremony, more Japanese are becoming worried that the Games could act as a super-spreader event. In numerous public opinion polls, more than 80% of people say the Olympics should be cancelled outright or delayed for one more year.
The Japanese government, the Tokyo authorities and the International Olympic Committee, however, still say they are committed to pushing ahead as planned. mbj