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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

IOC may bear the cost of vaccinating Olympic visitors

Organizers confident of pulling off Summer Games despite resurging coronavirus

IOC President Thomas Bach and Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori are "trying to win the empathy of the Japanese people," Mori says as the two discuss plans for the postponed 2020 Olympics. (Pool photo) 

TOKYO -- IOC President Thomas Bach spent a busy first day in Tokyo seeking to dispel suspicions that the postponed 2020 Games, now scheduled for next summer, will be canceled altogether and signaling that the International Olympic Committee will consider footing the bill to vaccinate spectators coming to Japan.

He also sought to talk reassuringly about how the two-week event -- which brings tens of thousands of people together from around the world -- can be held safely.

"We have seen in particular in Japan that even [amid a COVID-19 outbreak], you can organize safe sports events," Bach said on Monday after reviewing current plans with Tokyo 2020 organizers.

Tokyo organizers deemed successful two test events this month. In the first, a baseball game at Yokohama Stadium, 27,850 spectators lined up for temperature checks, then sat bemasked yet side by side. A week later, gymnasts from the U.S., Russia and China who had undergone a 14-day quarantine in Tokyo competed in a meet with Japanese athletes.

Spectator-attended baseball and football games in Japan actually resumed a few months ago as the number of transmissions dropped in the summer.

Bach had his optimism further buoyed last week by Pfizer's news that its coronavirus vaccine is showing 90% efficacy in preliminary trials and is nearing emergency approval by U.S. regulators.

Bach said the IOC will encourage athletes and foreign spectators to have vaccination shots before arriving in Japan, "in order to protect the Japanese people and out of respect for the Japanese people."

Those words came in the morning after Bach met with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. In the afternoon, he added, "If the vaccine is available, then the IOC would take these costs and cooperate with the national Olympic committees as a signal of respect to our Japanese hosts. The top priority of the IOC and the organizing committee has always been to offer a safe environment."

Vaccines still must prove safe and effective in trials. They also must be approved and distributed globally. Convincing people to be vaccinated could present another challenge.

The logistics will be daunting.

Planning for the postponed games so far has gone according to Tokyo 2020's timeline, and Bach's three-day visit is meant to show confidence in Japan's ability to stage the Olympics despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the surging pandemic.

As winter approaches infections are rapidly rising. On Saturday, Japan reported a record 1,738 daily new infections.

The virus's surge is much worse in the U.S. and other Western countries.

A September survey by Central Research Services found that 58.5% of Japanese respondents want the number of Olympic spectators to be limited to prevent further infections.

"We are trying to win the empathy of the Japanese people," Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said.

Bach pointed to the test events as proof that Tokyo organizers can handle next summer's big event.

"What the athletes and all the participants had, this is the key also for the Olympic Games," said Bach. "The athletes, the officials, the coaches, they all need to have the confidence that they are participating in a safe environment and that the same rules, regulations and restrictions are applied to all of them."

Come July, however, it will be more difficult to bring the 11,000 Olympic athletes together than it was keeping 22 gymnasts in a travel bubble earlier this month.

Bach took a charter flight to Tokyo and did not quarantine before meeting Tokyo 2020 chiefs Mori and Toshiro Muto; Suga and his predecessor, Shinzo Abe; and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

Olympic athletes and support staff will be required to show negative results of a COVID test taken within 72 hours of leaving for Japan, quarantine for 14 days, not use public transportation and refrain from sightseeing. Seating in locker rooms and Olympic Village dining halls will be spaced out, and acrylic dividers will be installed.

Control measures for spectators will not be finalized until the spring, according to organizers, though documents provided to reporters acknowledge that preventing foreign visitors from using public transportation will be unfeasible.

Bach did not rule out limiting the number of spectators. "We will have to see how the situation is next summer and under which conditions we can offer the safe environment for the spectators and that will lead to a reasonable number of spectators," he said. "This can be at full capacity in the best case. This can be less in many different cases."

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