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Japan still preparing for Olympics, prime minister says as virus concerns rise

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is still preparing to host the Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Saturday, despite rising global concern about the viability of the summer Games due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Abe and his government have been adamant the Olympics will go ahead, even as other global sporting events have been put on hold. Speculation about a delay from the July start date has grown since U.S. President Donald Trump said organizers should consider a one-year postponement.

Abe and Trump held a call after those comments, prompting the U.S. president to say on Twitter that the Olympic venue was magnificent. But this may not be enough to assuage sponsors of the Games, who are increasingly nervous about how the impact of the outbreak on the competition.

The Olympic Torch relay, in which the Olympic flame typically starts a tour around the host nation, is due to start in the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima in less than two weeks. The tour of the torch through Greece has already been cut short.

“We will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” Abe told a news conference in Tokyo, adding that delaying or cancelling the Olympics was “not a subject at all” in his call with Trump.

He said Japan working closely with the International Olympic Committee, which will have the final decision whether the Games go ahead, and the U.N. World Health Organization, suggesting he accepted that Tokyo would not ultimately decide on the event.

He said Japan had a relatively low infection rate and had not seen an explosion in cases as seen in South Korea, China, Italy, Iran and elsewhere. He said delaying the peak of infections was vital to ensure treatment of those in critical condition.

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TORCH RELAY

Abe said Japan did not need to declare a national emergency, although parliament on Friday approved a bill to give him emergency powers and allow him to close schools, halt large gatherings and requisition medical supplies.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike promised thorough measures against the coronavirus outbreak and said preparations for a “safe and secure” Games were progressing, TV Asahi reported.

Greece’s Olympic Committee canceled on Friday the remainder of the Olympic Torch relay through Greece to avoid attracting crowds, while the relay through Japan is scheduled to start on March 26.

Japan had 21 new coronavirus cases as of Saturday evening, bringing the total 1,443, public broadcaster NHK reported, while the has killed 28 people in Japan.

The total infections included 697 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and 14 returnees on chartered flights from China, according to NHK. Japan’s fatalities included those from the ship.

Reporting by Daniel Leussink and Chang-Ran Kim; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Leika Kihara; Editing by David Dolan and Edmund Blair

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