A senior member of Japan’s ruling party has said that cancelling the Tokyo Olympics “remains an option” if the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen.
“If it seems impossible to do it any more, then we have to stop, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic party, said in a TV interview that has yet to be aired.
While Nikai did not call for the Games to be called off, his comments are at odds with the united front presented by the Japanese government, Tokyo 2020 organisers and the International Olympic Committee [IOC] – all of which insist that the delayed event will open as planned on 23 July.
The pandemic shows no signs of slowing in several parts of the world, while experts in Japan have warned that the country has entered a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections driven by mutant strains of the virus.
Nikai, a powerful party faction leader who was instrumental in electing Yoshihide Suga as prime minister last year, said cancellation was “of course” an option, telling the TBS network: “If the Olympics were to spread infections, then what are the Olympics for?”
The Nikkei business newspaper quoted a senior government official as saying in response to Nikai that it would be “impossible to cancel the Olympics”.
His intervention comes just a day after organisers marked 100 days until the opening ceremony by insisting they would hold a “safe and secure” Games that will be attended by around 14,500 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and tens of thousands of media, sponsors and officials.
“We will hold the Games in a way that’s feasible,” Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccination drive, said in a separate TV interview, according to the Kyodo news agency. “That may be without spectators.”
No overseas spectators will be allowed to attend Olympic events, and a decision on whether to admit people in Japan to venues could come later this month.
Public opinion in the host nation is firmly opposed to the Games, with a recent poll showing that 39.2% thought they should be cancelled, and 32.8% calling for them to be postponed a second time – a move the IOC has said is unfeasible.
“Cancelling Olympics” was trending on Twitter in Japan on Thursday with more than 35,000 tweets. “If this person says it, Olympic cancellation looks like a reality,” one said in reference to Nikai’s comments.
Akira Koike, a Japanese Communist party MP, said holding the Games was already “impossible”, adding that a decision on cancellation should be made quickly.
Pressure on the IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers increased after several medical experts questioned the decision to push ahead with the Olympics during the pandemic.
In an editorial in this weeks BMJ, Kazuki Shimizu, Devi Sridhar, Kiyosu Taniguchi and Kenji Shibuya said it would be a mistake to host large numbers of people from overseas in Tokyo this summer.
“The whole global community recognises the need to contain the pandemic and save lives,” they wrote. “Holding Tokyo 2020 for domestic, political and economic purposes – ignoring scientific and moral imperatives – is contradictory to Japan’s commitment to global health and human security.
“We must reconsider this summer’s Games and instead collaborate internationally to agree a set of global and domestic conditions under which international multi-sport events can be held in the years ahead.
“These conditions must embody both Olympic and Paralympic values and adhere to international principles of public health.”
The authors pointed to the slow pace of vaccinations in Japan, where less than 1% of the population been inoculated. “Even healthcare workers and other high risk populations will not have access to vaccines before Tokyo 2020, to say nothing of the general population,” they said.