Japan Olympic Committee board member blasts Tokyo Games organisers


The emblems of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are displayed during an unveiling event of the items that will be used for the victory ceremonies, at Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan June 3, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato/Pool

TOKYO (Reuters) -A Japanese Olympic Committee board member on Friday blasted organisers of the Tokyo Games for ignoring public concerns about holding the global sporting showpiece amid a pandemic, as Japan's top medical adviser urged new steps to reduce the risk.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) appeared to think it could steamroll over the wishes of the Japanese public, who, surveys show, overwhelmingly want the games cancelled or postponed, the JOC's Kaori Yamaguchi said in an opinion piece carried by Japan's Kyodo news agency.

Already postponed from last year because of the pandemic, a scaled-down version of the Games with no foreign spectators is set to start on July 23 despite public fears the event could drain medical resources and spread the coronavirus as Japan battles a fourth wave of infections.

The government's top medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, told parliament on Friday the biggest risk from the Games was increased movement of the general public, which has contributed to past rises in infections.

"People have had enough of the 'stay home' request ... Unless (the government) comes up with something new in this critical phase it's going to be impossible" to prevent the risk of contagion, Omi said.

The JOC's Yamaguchi, a former Olympic medallist in judo, accused the Japanese government, the Tokyo 2020 organising committee and the IOC of "avoiding dialogue" and said the IOC "seems to think that public opinion in Japan is not important."

"I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel ... We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now. We are damned if we do, and damned if we do not."

A series of comments by IOC officials have sparked outrage in Japan, including one by IOC Vice President John Coates that the Olympics would be held even under a state of emergency such as is currently in place in Tokyo and other regions.

"HOPE AND COURAGE"

Japan's government also says the Games can go ahead safely despite a slow vaccine rollout and rising numbers of severe coronavirus cases straining the medical system. The country has recorded nearly 750,000 cases and more than 13,000 deaths.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces a general election and a ruling party leadership race this year, and pulling off the Games, with an estimated budget of $15.4 billion, is seen as critical to keeping his job.

Medical adviser Omi this week issued his strongest warning yet over what he characterised as a lack of discussion within the government and organising committee over how to control the movement of people if the Games go ahead.

He expressed frustration that public health guidance, including his, was not reaching the IOC, and on Friday said medical experts were planning a statement on the Games by June 20, when the current state of emergency is set to be lifted.

"We are now considering where we should give our advice," Omi told lawmakers. "If they want to hold (the Games), it's our job to tell them what the risks are."

Japan's latest emergency steps, unlike stricter measures abroad, have focused on asking eateries that serve alcohol to close and those that do not to shut down by 8 p.m.

Prime Minister Suga, who has seen his voter support eroded by dissatisfaction with the response to the pandemic, has said that successfully hosting a "safe and secure" Games would "bring hope and courage to the world".

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party senior lawmaker Masahiko Shibayama told reporters that public acceptance of the Games would likely grow as the vaccination rollout gathers steam.

"Vaccinations are proceeding faster than expected, and if infections decrease sharply, the medical system will get relief and restrictions on ordinary people can be relaxed gradually," he said. "If the Olympics are held that way, I think understanding will grow."

Even if the government hits its target of vaccinating all health workers and seniors by the end of July - after the Games begin - that means 33% of the population will be inoculated.

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Writing by Linda Sieg and Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Stephen Coates and Gerry Doyle)

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