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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Abe softens stance on full-scale Olympics to avoid cancellation

Japan looks to hold games even if vaccine isn't widely available

A cyclist rides past a large poster featuring Tokyo 2020 Olympics mascot Miraitowa in Tokyo on June 4.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly vowed to hold the Olympics in a "complete form" next summer, but those ambitions are being tamped down as he hopes to avoid the worst-case scenario: a cancellation of the event.

The International Olympic Committee's executive board meets online Wednesday to discuss the postponed Summer Games. The only two choices are holding the games in Tokyo next year as scheduled or canceling them altogether, IOC member Pierre-Olivier Beckers-Vieujant said, according to European media.

A final decision could be made next spring, Beckers-Vieujant said.

The new coronavirus still rages outside Japan. Development of treatments and vaccines has lagged behind schedule.

So the Abe government is scrambling to prepare for athletes and spectators to go even if vaccines have not been fully administered. The only option off the table is holding the games without fans in the seats.

Organizers will adopt a flexible administrative policy reflecting the IOC's desire to control costs. This may include simplifying the event by shortening the opening ceremony, the torch relay schedule and the guest list.

Abe recently used the term "complete form" when talking to reporters May 25, the day he declared an end to Japan's state of emergency over COVID-19.

"Next summer, as proof that humanity has completely defeated the novel coronavirus, I intend to open the games in a complete form," he said.

This determination started to soften in the government the next day, when Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori visited Abe at the prime minister's official residence.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exchange words in July 2019 in Tokyo. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Mori said the priority should be to host the Olympics without obsessing over whether they are complete, according to a source familiar with the conversation. The former prime minister was also reportedly hesitant over whether mass vaccination should be a condition.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained the phrase "complete form" to reporters last Thursday.

"We will carry out a safe tournament in a way that international athletes play in top condition and spectators have peace of mind," Suga said.

But he left room for interpretation. "The IOC is not making vaccine development a condition for" holding the games, Suga said.

The IOC officially decided in March to postpone what would have been the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Abe floated the idea of pushing the games back by about a year to IOC President Thomas Bach.

At the time, the virus was showing signs of waning in China, and Abe presumed that the pandemic would die down by the summer of 2021. The Olympics also would take place just before the end of his current term that September, closing out his tenure with a bang.

But after the delay was announced, the U.S. and Europe became the twin epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease has also run rampant in Brazil, which is about to head into winter.

A senior IOC official hinted in May that a decision on holding the Tokyo Olympics would be made around October. But no vaccine is expected by that time -- and even if there is one, it will not be available in sufficient quantity right away.

In late May, Japan's National Security Secretariat ordered relevant government agencies to put safety measures in place so that Tokyo can host the Olympics even if the outbreak has not completely passed. Empty stadiums are out of the question, since they would undermine the optics of humanity defeating the disease.

But how to responsibly let athletes and spectators in, while keeping infected travelers out, remains a big issue.

The government will put forward a plan this month to allow in business travelers who can submit proof of negative PCR tests for the virus, as well as detail their itineraries.

Japanese officials look to kick the final decision on hosting the Olympics as far down the road as possible to maximize the chances that the event will be held. Tokyo 2020 Vice President Toshiaki Endo said in a meeting last Friday that the final call would be made "around March next year." If preliminary matches do not finish by then, holding the Summer Olympics would prove problematic.

The postponement will generate about 300 billion yen ($2.75 billion) in extra costs, including lease payments for sports venues and labor, bringing the total budget to 1.35 trillion yen.

Japan would suffer an economic loss of 640.8 billion yen from pushing the Olympics back to the summer of 2021, Kansai University professor emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto estimated in March. The loss exceeds 4.5 trillion yen if the games are canceled.

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