Olympics: Tokyo 2020 announces opening event despite mounting COVID-19 concerns

Olympics: Tokyo 2020 announces opening event despite mounting COVID-19 concerns

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa and Paralympic mascot Someity plushies are displayed for
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa and Paralympic mascot Someity plushies are displayed for sale inside a souvenir shop in J-village compound, ahead of the upcoming Olympics torch relay in Nahara town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

TOKYO: Tokyo 2020 organisers said on Thursday (Mar 12) that Japan's softball game against Australia on Jul 22 would be the first event on the schedule, the announcement coming as concerns mount about the potential impact on the Games from the COVID-19 outbreak.

The game will begin at 9am local time at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium with another two fixtures, Italy v United States and Mexico v Canada, later in the day.

It will mark the first day of action at the Games, which officially begin with the opening ceremony on Jul 24.

The schedule announcement comes amid fears that the coronavirus outbreak, labelled a pandemic by the WHO on Wednesday, could have a major impact on the Games.

READ: Tokyo Olympics organisers say no plans to postpone or cancel 2020 Games

READ: In Tokyo, a growing sense of angst over coronavirus-hit Games

The Tokyo city governor on Thursday said cancelling the Olympics is "unthinkable", although the classification of the coronavirus as a pandemic will likely have some impact on the Games.

"It can't be said that the announcement of a pandemic would have no impact ... But I think cancellation is unthinkable," Yuriko Koike told reporters.

Koike vowed to work with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 organisers on what she described as a "global issue", promising to devote her "utmost efforts" to holding the Games.

GLOBAL SPORT CANCELLATIONS

But the coronavirus has already taken a huge toll on sport across the globe with a long list of competitions affected.

US basketball was the latest sport to be hit, as the NBA said it would suspend the season starting on Thursday after a preliminary test on a Utah Jazz player came back positive for COVID-19.

In Italy, the hardest-hit European country, all sporting events including Serie A football have been suspended until Apr 3.

READ: NBA to suspend season after Utah Jazz player tests positive for COVID-19

READ: Football - Juventus defender Rugani tests positive for coronavirus

Arsenal's game at Manchester City on Wednesday was the first Premier League football fixture to be called off, while Champions League matches have been played behind closed doors and Indian Wells, one of the biggest events of the tennis season, was cancelled.

A Tokyo 2020 organising committee member said late on Wednesday that any decision to delay the Olympics should be made before May but on Thursday Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said there was no change in planning for the Games.

Coronavirus has already had some impact on the Games, as the traditional flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, is expected to be held without spectators after dozens tested positive for the virus nearby.

The torch is due to arrive in Japan on Mar 20 but the arrival ceremony has also been downscaled, with around 200 children originally scheduled to attend now expected to miss it.

Olympic qualifying tournaments in several different sports have also been cancelled, postponed or moved to different countries.

CALLS FOR PLAN B

Japan's ruling party heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba said Japan must brainstorm plans for dealing with cancelled or postponed the Games, even if that is unlikely. The outspoken critic of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen as a leading candidate to be the next prime minister.

The fate of the Tokyo Olympics was a decision best left to the IOC, he said, but declined to comment on what the best move might be.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks in front of the Olympic rings at the waterfront area at Odaiba Marine Park
FILE PHOTO: FILE PICTURE: A man wearing a face mask, following an outbreak of the coronavirus, walks in front of giant Olympic rings at the waterfront area at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo, Japan, March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov/File Photo

Whatever the decision, Japan must be prepared, he said.

"Not thinking about worst-case scenarios won't eliminate the risk of them materialising," Ishiba told Reuters.

"The government must start thinking now about what to do" in case the Olympics Games is cancelled or postponed, he added.

Haruyuki Takahashi, an executive board member of the organising committee, told Japan's Asahi Shimbun daily on Wednesday it would be ideal to hold the Olympics as planned but "there has to be an alternative plan".

"The coronavirus has become a global problem. We can't just hold it (the Olympics) because Japan is OK," he said.

As of Wednesday, Japan had 620 cases and 15 deaths, excluding people on a cruise ship that was quarantined near Yokohama last month, according to the health ministry.

Experts say the tally may be deceptively low due to the limited number of tests in Japan compared with many other countries.

Takahashi said the summer two years from now "offers the best possibility" for a postponement, given the international sporting calendar, adding that "preparation must start now" if a delay is on the cards.

He insisted that it would be "impossible" to cancel the Games altogether, and said he was speaking out as "a warning bell" for the organising committee, adding that he would raise the issue at a board meeting later this month.

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Source: Agencies/jt

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