Olympics-Japan swimmer Ikee pleads for understanding amid calls for athletes to withdraw from Olympics

FILE PHOTO: Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee takes part in the swimming demonstration during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, which will host artistic swimming, diving, and swimming events at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games, as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Tokyo, Japan October 24, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, who qualified for the Olympics after overcoming leukaemia last year, asked the public to show patience and support for athletes amid mounting calls for them to pull out of the Tokyo Games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 20-year-old's story has become a bright spot in a tortured build-up to the Olympics, with Japan's government facing increasing criticism for forging ahead during an upsurge in infections.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated that it is still possible to host the Games, due to run from July 23 to Aug. 8, even as a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other areas was extended on Friday until the end of May to stem a surge in infections.

Ikee said she and others will accept whatever the organisers decide.

"If there is one, we will of course do our best, and if not, we will just do our best for the next one," Ikee said in a post on Twitter on Friday.

Foreign spectators have been barred from attending the Games, and organisers will decide next month whether Japanese fans will be allowed into the venues.

Ikee also sought sympathy for athletes, who are being urged by critics to take individual decisions to try to persuade the organisers to call off the Games.

"It is very painful to put it on the individual athlete," she said.

"Even if you ask me to speak out against the Games, I can't change anything," she said, asking her fans to "warmly watch over the athletes who are working hard, no matter what the situation is."

More than 270,000 signatures have been collected by Saturday in an online petition calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics.

Kenji Utsunomiya, former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, began the petition on Wednesday, saying that holding the Games without stopping the pandemic would "deviates greatly from the Olympics philosophy which is supposed to be a festival of peace".

Ikee, who won six gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games, was expected to be one of Japan's top medal hopefuls at the Olympics before she was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2019.

Last month, Ikee wrapped up the national championships with four titles, including the women's 100-metre butterfly and 100-metre freestyle events, less than eight months after she returned to competition following her recovery.

(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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