ATHENS (Reuters) - International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach moved on Wednesday to ease fears after complaints by athletes as Japan insisted it was not preparing for a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.
With the Olympic flame about to be handed by Greece to Japan, Bach said the IOC heard the athletes’ concerns on health and preparations as the virus, which has infected over 200,000 and killed more than 8,000 worldwide, continues to spread.
“Everybody realised that we have still more than four months to go and we will address this action, and we will keep acting in a responsible way in the interest of the athletes,” Bach said after a conference call with 220 athletes representatives.
Meanwhile, Japan is still planning to host the Olympics as scheduled from July 24-Aug. 9.
“We’re not making any adjustments to postpone the Games,” the government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told parliament when asked by a lawmaker whether the government was making plans to cancel or postpone the event.
His comments came amid growing concerns about whether the Games can proceed as planned, with the virus panicking financial markets and bringing business and social activity around the world to a standstill.
Many sports events, some scheduled as far ahead as early June, have been cancelled or postponed, raising concerns among athletes.
Several, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said the IOC decision was putting athletes’ health at risk, urging them to train as normal when entire countries have shut down to contain the virus spread.
“There is no postponement, no cancellation. But it (the IOC) is putting us at risk,” Stefanidi said in an interview with Reuters.
Tokyo is set to host about 11,000 athletes and 57% have earned their spots at the Games. The remaining 43% will clinch their places through modified qualifiers, or previous performances based on ranking.
The IOC and the Japanese government’s optimism was not shared by the finance minister, who called the Tokyo Games the cursed Olympics.
“It’s a problem that’s happened every 40 years - it’s the cursed Olympics - and that’s a fact,” Taro Aso, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said in a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, referring to the 1940 Summer and Winter Games, cancelled by World War II, and the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics has already been disrupted as little-known retired swimmer Naoko Imoto will be a last-minute stand-in to receive the Olympic flame during a scaled back handover in Athens on Thursday.
The Tokyo 2020 team contacted Imoto, who lives in Greece and represented Japan in the 800 metres freestyle relay at the 1996 Atlanta Games, only hours before making the announcement on Wednesday evening.
Due to coronavirus concerns and travel restrictions placed on flying in and out of Europe, Tokyo 2020 announced on Tuesday it would not be sending a delegation to Athens to receive the Olympic flame, as is customary for a host city.
The Japanese ambassador to Greece will instead receive the flame on behalf of Tokyo 2020 during a ceremony set to take place in an empty stadium.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Jack Tarrant and Ossian Shine; Editing by Ed Osmond