Tokyo Olympics Will Have No Crowds As Japan Declares Emergency To Last Throughout Games

2021-07-08 Reading Time: 7 minutes
Japanese protestors march past the National Stadium as an Olympic test event for athletics is held inside the Tokyo venue in May and June: they wanted the Games called off and took their protest to the ballot box in recent Tokyo Metropolitan elections - courtesy of Kyodo

There will be no crowds, no spectators, no supporters but for those in teams themselves at the Tokyo 2020ne Olympic Games after Japan’s prime minister declared a state of emergency in the host and nation’s capital city. 

The decision means that all sports held inside the state of emergency zone, including swimming, must generate their own atmosphere: teams can support their athletes but clapping rather than cheering is recommended.

Asked at a Team USA press conference about the impact of no crowds, Dave Durden, men’s head coach, said that he thought American swimmers had got used to racing without spectators during the pandemic, though the Olympic trials last month were packed. The answer was to make your own noise. He said: “We’re going to make that venue loud”.

Simone Manuel, the Olympic 100m free champion, indicated that crowd noise was often secondary anyhow, in the sense that focus was on “racing … and getting your hand to the wall first … and just to swim fast for Team USA and ourselves”.

Double defending champion Ryan Murphy, winner of the 100 and 200m backstroke at Rio 2016 as the latest giant in a thread and tradition of American backstroke supremacy (1992 was the last Games at which USA men did not win a backstroke title – and then it was a double whammy of loss in the 100 and 200m), added that the team was ready to race no matter what. He noted that the U.S. squad was “about as fired up as we can be … whatever the situation … we’ll be swimming as fast as we can”.

Even so, the absence of any crowd will make the Games back in Tokyo for the first time since 1964 a wholly different experience, though one many swimmers have become somewhat accustomed to, with trials and championships far and wide having been held in crowd-free venues during the pandemic and its association restrictions.

The International Swimming League (ISL), which today welcomed the launch of the London Roar Academy for Swimming, staged a successful six-week Bubble of Budapest Season 2 and Solidarity Camp last year under a struct medical protocol without crowds present for the made-for-TV pro-swim spectacle.

Olympic minister Tamayo Marukawa confirmed the news today following talks between the government, organisers and Olympic and paralympic representatives, including Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who arrived in Japan just as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a new state of emergency for Tokyo.

“Venues in Tokyo will not include spectators,” said Marukawa. “For those areas where the state of emergency is not implemented … we will discuss.”

In a joint statement, the IOC and International Paralympic Committee (IPC), noted:

The IOC and IPC, respecting this decision, support it in the interest of safe and secure Games for everybody. At the same time, all five parties deeply regret for the athletes and for the spectators that this measure had to be put in place for the reasons outlined above.

Tokyo Olympics mascot Miraitowa poses for a photo with an Olympic rings monument erected on the summit of Mt. Takao in Tokyo’s Hachioji on April 14, 2021 – courtesy of Kyodo (Pool photo)

See foot of this article for statement in full.

The widely expected barring of crowds is the latest blow to a Games delayed by a year by the pandemic and plagued by budget overspends of sizeable proportions (see Games in Numbers link below). Polls continue to indicate that a majority of the Japanese public would prefer the Games to be cancelled or postponed again. Neither of those things is financially palatable, while there is no appetite to deny athletes the moment many have trained many years for. At the same time, there is no appetite for another wave of Covid-19 infections in Japan nor the pressure that would place on an already stretched Japanese health service.

Prime Minister Suga said today that it was essential to prevent Tokyo from becoming the source of another wave of infections, especially with the highly infectious Delta variant on the rise.

Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency begins on Monday, just 11 days before the Games are due to open. The emergency will last throughout the Olympics and end on August 22, two days before the Paralympics are set to get underway.

Tokyo reported 920 new infections on Wednesday. That compares with 714 last Wednesday and is the highest total since 1,010 were reported on 13 May. It announced 896 new cases on Thursday.

“Taking into consideration the effect of coronavirus variants and the need to prevent infections from spreading to the rest of the nation again, we need to strengthen our countermeasures,” Suga said. “Given the situation, we will issue a state of emergency for Tokyo.”

Tokyo Twilight – image courtesy of Kyodo

Weeks of quasi-emergency measures targeting Tokyo’s night-time economy have failed to prevent a surge in infections. From Monday, there will be a renewed ban on serving alcohol at bars and restaurants, which will also have to close early.

For many visitors to the Games, they would not have access to such facilities nor night life in Tokyo anyway, reasons including their jobs, whether as athletes, coaches, media or otherwise, as well as the fact that all visitors must be in Japan for at least 14 days before they are allowed to move beyond the bubble of their specific role at the Games.

Using myself as an example, I will be in Tokyo for the Games for just under the 14-day requirement, meaning that life will be a journey from hotel to pool, the Main Press Centre and hotel and media centre restaurants within the bubble.

There will be no street parties, festivals or any of the other activities that have long been a part of the Olympic Games and have featured in all seven summer Olympics I have worked at as a journalist. Games No 8 will be somewhat different, though the swim meet holds every prospect of being a fast and thrilling competition.

Tokyo Restrictions Put Further Pressure On Japanese Government

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga

The new state of emergency adds to pressure being heaped on Suga, whose handling of the crisis and insistence that the Games go ahead converted to a poor showing for his party in Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections last weekend.

“Politically speaking, having no spectators is now unavoidable,” a ruling party source told Reuters.

Suga and the IOC have sought to assure the world and the Japanese people that Tokyo will or would stage a “safe and secure” Olympics even as infection rates rise in the host city. Voter anger appears to be on the rise just a few months before a general election, the result of which may well depend on how the Olympics pans out beyond the field of play in the realm of infections, hospitalisations and health outcomes.

Tokyo Organisers and the IOC banned overseas spectators at the start of the year but until today, the plan was to allow Japanese spectators into venues at 50% venue capacity up to a maximum of 10,000 people.

Medical advisers have said that a crowd-free Games is the leats risky option given the unfolding arrival of tens of thousands of athletes, officials, sponsors reports and support staff from all around the world.

The Opening Ceremony is due on July 23. It will now be a television event, without spectators present in the new $1.4bn Olympic stadium. Better, some say, than having no Games at all.

One of the issues causing consternation among Japanese facing restrictions and lockdowns is that IOC officials and sponsors can attend in significant numbers in their role as “organisers”, even though some of them have no work to do whatsoever. Media is already reporting cases where officials and others are booked into Tokyo even though they would appear to have no function to perform other than that of a spectator.

Meanwhile, Japan has reported about 810,000 cases and nearly 14,900 deaths. Only 15% of the population is fully vaccinated, compared with 47.4% in the US and over 50% in Britain.

Reports from International Agencies and The Guardian are among sources for the above story.

IOC and IPC Joint Statement On Tokyo Spectators

Today, following the decision by the Government of Japan (GoJ) to announce a state of emergency in Tokyo, the five parties, namely the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and the GoJ came together for a meeting.

During this meeting, the IOC and the IPC were informed by the Japanese side about the impact of this announcement on the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 and supported the policies that were presented by the Japanese parties.

The main decisions are as follows:

  • The GoJ today decided to announce a state of emergency in Tokyo. The state of emergency in Tokyo is being implemented as a measure aimed at suppressing the flow of people in order to prevent the spread of infection now, because the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases remains high and the number of people infected with variant COVID-19 strains in Tokyo is increasing.
  • The conclusion of the Five-Party Meeting held on 21 June 2021 included: “In the event that a state of emergency or other priority measures aimed at preventing infection are implemented at any time after 12 July 2021, restrictions on spectator numbers at the Games, including non-spectator competitions, will be based on the content of the state of emergency or other relevant measures in force at that time.” In response to the state of emergency, stricter measures with regard to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 have also been decided by the three Japanese parties. No spectators will be allowed into any venues in Tokyo during the Olympic Games. Under this policy, in areas where emergency measures are not in force, local government authorities will meet and decide specific measures in consultation with the local governors based on the situation in each area.
  • In the event of a significant change in the state of infection, a Five-Party Meeting will be convened immediately to review the spectator capacity.
  • Following the same discussion on 21 June, it was also stated: “The policy for the Paralympic Games will be decided by 16 July, one week before the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games.” However, it will now be necessary to make a decision based on the infection situation prevailing at the time. For this reason, the decision regarding the admission of Paralympic event spectators will now be taken when the Olympic Games end.

The IOC and IPC, respecting this decision, support it in the interest of safe and secure Games for everybody.

At the same time, all five parties deeply regret for the athletes and for the spectators that this measure had to be put in place for the reasons outlined above.

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