TOKYO: Japan doubled down on its commitment to host the Tokyo Olympics this year and flatly denied reports on Friday (Jan 22) of a possible cancellation, in a move that is unlikely to temper public fears of holding the event during a global pandemic.
A government spokesman said there was no truth to a report by UK newspaper the Times earlier on Friday which said that Japan's government had privately concluded the already-delayed Games would be cancelled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We will clearly deny the report," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai said in a press conference.
In a rare move, the government issued a statement to shoot down the report, saying it was working closely with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other parties in preparation for a safe and secure Games.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said that there was no talk of cancelling or delaying the Olympics, and that a protest should be lodged over the Times report.
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee also denied the report, saying in a statement its partners, including the Japanese government and the IOC, were "fully focused" on hosting the games as scheduled.
"It is very disappointing to see that the Times is developing such a tabloid-like story with an untrustworthy source," a Tokyo 2020 source told Reuters.
"The national government is fully committed to delivering a safe and secure Games, and we are always encouraged by their dedications," the source said.
In early international reactions, the Australian and United States Olympic Committees said they were preparing for the Games as planned.
"Unfortunately, I need to address unfounded rumours that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be cancelled, rumours that only create more anxiety for athletes," Matt Carroll, the chief executive of the Australian committee, told reporters in Sydney.
"The Tokyo Games are on. The flame will be lit on July 23, 2021."
The Australian committee is run by the IOC's pointman for the Tokyo Games, John Coates.
Before the decision came to postpone the Games last year, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) was one of the first to say its country's athletes wouldn't be heading to Tokyo.
The United States and Canadian committees wrote on Twitter they had not received any information suggesting the Games would not happen as planned.
"Any official communication on the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will come from the IOC, Tokyo Organizing Committee and the Japanese government," the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee wrote on Twitter.
"We have not received any information suggesting the Games will not happen as planned, and our focus remains on the health and preparedness of Team USA athletes ahead of the Games this summer."
The Times cited an unnamed senior member of the ruling coalition in its report, saying that the government's focus had shifted to securing the Games for Tokyo in the next available year, 2032.
Japan has been hit less severely by the pandemic than many other advanced economies, but a recent surge in cases has spurred it to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and major cities.
About 80 per cent of people in Japan do not want the Games to be held this summer, recent opinion polls show, over fears the influx of athletes will spread the virus further.
Against this backdrop, the government is seeking a way to save face by announcing a cancellation that leaves the door open to Tokyo hosting at a later date, the Times report said.
"No one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it's too difficult," the Times quoted the source as saying. "Personally, I don't think it's going to happen."
Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday that he was determined to realise the Tokyo Olympics, and will work closely with Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee. His comments came after the media report.
Organisers and the Japanese government had previously vowed to press ahead with preparations for the Games.
Suga said earlier this week that the showpiece event would "bring hope and courage to the world".
IOC president Thomas Bach reaffirmed his commitment to holding the Games this year in an interview with Kyodo News on 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 in the Olympic stadium in Tokyo," Bach told Kyodo.