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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Tokyo Olympics confront new doubts with 6 months to go

Qualifiers, vaccinations and crowd size still up in the air as pandemic rages

The start of Japan's torch relay on March 25 is seen as a possible deadline for any decision to cancel the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

TOKYO -- With just six months until the start of the Summer Olympics here, one of the biggest challenges to overcome involves the athletes themselves -- or the lack of them.

Only 57% of the roughly 11,000 slots are filled, according to the International Olympic Committee. Most of the qualifying tournaments are scheduled for March or later, but the coronavirus pandemic continues to cloud prospects.

Qualifiers are just one of the uncertainties facing the already delayed Tokyo Games, which were hit with fresh doubts this week that prompted another assurance from the government that the event remains on.

"The international organizations tell us they are going ahead [with qualifiers], but there is absolutely no definite information," said a person involved in the games.

Competitive skateboarding is due to make its Olympic debut, but no preliminaries have been scheduled and no venues have been designated. Qualifiers for fencing and boxing, among other sports, are also up in the air.

The final prelims for artistic swimming are to be held March 4-7 in Tokyo. But under Japan's ongoing emergency declaration, new international arrivals are barred as a rule. Those entering the country are expected to self-isolate for two weeks, and policymakers may hesitate to reopen an exemption for Olympic athletes.

Organizations representing gymnastics and boxing are considering skipping qualifiers altogether. Athletes would be chosen based on their records instead. But this arrangement risks sparking criticism over fairness.

"We're in a situation where everyone needs to stick it out," said Morinari Watanabe, president of the International Gymnastics Federation. "The first priority is figuring out how to hold" the Tokyo Games.

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 represents a potentially greater challenge. IOC President Thomas Bach said his organization will pay for vaccines given to athletes. But the competitors come from roughly 200 countries and territories, all with highly disparate vaccination programs and infection rates. It is uncertain that vaccines will reach all the athletes in a speedy fashion.

The Tokyo Olympic organizing committee plans to request that athletes complete a rigorous screening before leaving their respective countries, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

But the hard-to-detect incubation period for the coronavirus creates daunting difficulties in trying to block all infected individuals from crossing the border. More than 70 people have been forced to quarantine in hotel rooms after positive cases were found on charter flights carrying tennis players to the Australian Open tournament.

The Tokyo city government and the organizing committee intend to deploy doctors to Olympic venues. But Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, questioned the region's capacity to hospitalize athletes who fall ill.

"Intake will be difficult given the current health care setting," Nakagawa said in an address Friday in Tokyo.

Exactly how many spectators will be allowed to enter Japan remains undecided. The government is weighing three scenarios: no limit to fans, 50% of seating capacity or no spectators at all.

The spread of more infectious coronavirus variants makes the more optimistic scenarios appear less feasible than they were last fall, when Japan's new infection numbers were lower.

A path to holding the games likely needs to be carved out prior to the Olympic torch relay, which begins March 25. Last year, Bach and then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe postponed the Olympics just two days before the initial relay was due to start in Japan.

Once the torch relay begins, any move to halt preparations for the games is expected to face a higher barrier.

Outside of Japan, new doubts have been expressed about whether the Tokyo Games can be held.

"If I was sitting in the shoes of the organizing committee in Tokyo, I would be making plans for a cancellation, and I'm sure they have plans for a cancellation," Keith Mills, former deputy chairman of the London Olympic organizing committee, said on BBC radio.

Kevan Gosper, a former IOC vice chairman from Australia, suggests having an independent body involved in any decision about canceling the Olympics.

"If you were looking for a third party that recognizes that this has gone beyond being an issue just related to sport, or just related to national interest," Gosper said on an Australian program, "then there could be a case to go to the United Nations and seek their involvement in arbitrating whether the games go ahead or not."

No prominent calls have come from athletes to cancel or postpone the games. USA Swimming, an organization that called for the Olympics to be postponed last year, released an open letter last month saying "our hope for recovery is strong."

Michael Schirp, press officer for the German Olympic Sports Confederation, said the athletes are hoping that the games will be held, even if cutbacks have to be made.

Bach said Thursday: "We have at this moment no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on the 23rd of July."

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