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Coronavirus

K-1 organizer harshly criticized over Japan match amid virus

Kickboxing event attended by 6,500 fans went ahead despite official opposition

A K-1 event in Japan went ahead on March 22 despite official requests it not be held due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus. (File photo from Reuters)

TOKYO -- A mixed martial arts event that drew thousands of fans went ahead on Sunday in defiance of a government request to refrain from holding large gatherings on concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, sparking public criticism on social media and by officials.

As many as 6,500 fans gathered at Saitama Super Arena, one of the biggest event venues in the Tokyo area, on the last day of a three-day weekend to watch mixed martial arts matches sponsored by K-1 Global Holdings, which hosts such events worldwide.

It came amid mounting concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Japan, where the government is advising organizers to carefully consider whether to hold events, though leaving eventual decisions up to them.

Japan's number of coronavirus cases remains far below those seen in countries such as Italy, Iran and the United States but experts warn that the situation could quickly change at any time with a possible explosion of infections possible in poorly ventilated locations where many people gather.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's economy minister, and Motohiro Oono, the governor of Saitama Prefecture where the event was held, had asked organizers to refrain from going ahead, and had critical comments after their requests were rebuffed.

Fans gather at the entrance to the Saitama Super Arena ahead of the K-1 'K'FESTA.3' on March 22 in Saitama, Japan.   © Kyodo

"We do not have the authority to force them to cancel, but it is regrettable that the event was held like this," Oono told reporters on Sunday. Nishimura described its taking place as "really regrettable."

K-1 Global Holdings did take some preventive measures, including reducing attendance and distributing surgical masks and taking temperatures at the entrance. The organizer also asked fans to provide their address and phone number so as to be able to contact them if anyone tested positive for coronavirus after the event.

Takumi Nakamura, who produced the event, told Japanese media that he cut the number of seats to under 10,000 to reduce the scale of the gathering, stressing that all efforts were taken to prevent infections. Almost 10,000 people attended last year's event.

But the decision to go ahead, which drew boos on social media, came as many other big gatherings have been canceled, postponed or curtailed in an effort to curb the spread of the virus in Japan.

Some Twitter users slammed organizers and fans for their "stupid decision" to hold and attend Sunday's event, saying they risked people's lives by putting priority on a momentary amusement. Others, meanwhile, expressed fears that the event might trigger an explosion in new infections.

Thailand has seen a surge in infections, with a key factor cited being an outbreak at a Muay Thai, or traditional Thai boxing, stadium. The sport has similarities with K-1, such as allowing kicking, and also takes place in packed arenas characterized by the boisterous cheering of devoted fans.

The opening of Japan's 12 team professional baseball league season has been postponed, while other sporting events, including marathons held in local cities and the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup Tokyo, have been canceled. Japan's national sport of sumo held its most recent tournament this month -- but without fans in attendance.

''Japan can be criticized for not being cautious,'' said a person involved in sports in Japan, referring to the K-1 event. ''And it will adversely affect the Tokyo Olympics.''

Angst over whether the 2020 Games, scheduled to start in July, may have to be delayed is increasing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that postponement is an option if it cannot be held in a "complete form" due to the pandemic.

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