After a year of “uncertainty and immense unprecedented challenges,” Canadian Olympic gold medalist Erica Wiebe is looking forward to competing in her second Olympic Games later this year.
“Sport has the power to unite, to overcome anything and I think that the Olympic Games will be an amazing opportunity to highlight that,” Wiebe told Global News.
Wiebe’s optimism is not shared by many others, who are calling for the upcoming Summer Games to be cancelled amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections and the rapid spread of new variants in Japan.
The mega sports event, already pushed back by a year and being held under tight restrictions due to the pandemic, is set to kick off in the Japanese capital on July 23.
But with cases surging across much of Asia, opposition to the event is getting louder and stronger.
More than 80 per cent of Japanese people are not in favour of the Games being held this year, according to a national newspaper poll published Monday.
“I think the worst thing you could possibly do during a global pandemic is get a whole bunch of people from all over the world to travel to one place, mix in close quarters and then go back again,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.
“That’s a recipe for making things worse. I can certainly understand why folks in Japan would be very concerned about this.”
A jump in infections has stoked alarm amid a shortage of medical staff and hospital beds in some areas of the Japanese capital, forcing the government to extend a third state of emergency in Tokyo and several other prefectures until May 31.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association representing about 6,000 primary care doctors strongly urged to government to scrap the Games, saying the city’s hospitals “have their hands full and have almost no spare capacity.”
An online petition — called “Stop Tokyo Olympics” – submitted last week to local organizers, the IOC and others had garnered more than 350,000 signatures as of Friday.
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Meanwhile, the IOC offered reassurances Wednesday that the Games would be safe for everybody, vowing to press ahead with its plans.
To limit the spread of infection, no foreign spectators will be allowed at the event, athletes will be tested daily for COVID-19 and must wear a mask at all times, except while training, competing or during interviews. A decision has yet to be made on the number of domestic fans that will be allowed in the stands.
Athletes will also be required to stay within a “bubble” consisting of the Olympic Village on Tokyo Bay, venues and training areas. But they will not need to quarantine upon arrival or have to vaccinate to participate.
As a dress rehearsal for the main spectacle, test events with some 420 athletes are being held this month without spectators at the Olympic venue.
“I think athletes are asking themselves some very hard questions at the moment, just like they did last March when they actually provoked the cancelation, particularly Canada’s athletes,” said Peter Donnelly, director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.
Former Olympian Angela Schneider, who won the silver medal in rowing at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, said despite the strict protocols, “the risks are just too high” with thousands of foreign athletes involved.
“We could have a super spreader event,” the 61-year-old Canadian told Global News.
Canada is planning to send its national team, but Canadians are divided about the decision.
Forty-two per cent of people surveyed said they don’t think Canadian athletes should compete in the Tokyo Games, while 39 per cent said Team Canada should attend, according to a poll by Leger and the Association of Canadian Studies this month.
When asked if they think competing in the games will be safe, 46 per cent of people said no, 35 per cent said yes and 19 per cent were not sure.
Either way, the organizers find themselves in a “lose-lose” situation, said Schneider.
“It is a major loss for the athletes. Weighing that on the other side, though, is the incredible public potential health risk to the Japanese people.”
Slow vaccine rollout
The pace of Japan’s vaccine rollout is also a concern. So far, just 3.7 per cent of the population of 126 million have received at least one vaccine shot, the lowest rate among wealthy countries.
Japan aims to inoculate most of its 36-million people older than 65 by the end of July. To reach that target, it hopes to deliver about a million shots a day, which is three times faster than the current pace.
Pfizer and BioNTech announced earlier this month they would be donating COVID-19 doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Tokyo Games.
The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has said it believes it will have access to these donated vaccine doses as part of an IOC initiative.
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IOC chief Thomas Bach said he anticipated more than 80 per cent of those staying in the Olympic Village would be vaccinated.
Even if the vast majority of people are immunized, the prospect of athletes travelling from all corners of the world and descending onto one place is “dangerous,” said Furness.
“The question is, how much COVID are we going to spread as a result of the Olympics and how many lives might that cost?” he said.
If the Games are held as scheduled, it won’t be the same experience for athletes and fans as previous years, said Donnelly.
“I suspect that if it does go ahead, it will be in empty stadiums and it will only be for television.
“It will not be an Olympics as we know the Olympics for the host cities.”
–With files from Global News’ Katherine Aylesworth, Reuters, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press
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