Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper, an official Tokyo Olympics partner, calls for cancellation

Poll after poll has shown the majority of the public is opposed to holding the Games this summer. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's Asahi Shimbun, an official partner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, called for the Summer Games to be cancelled in an editorial on Wednesday (May 26), citing risks to public safety and strains on the medical system from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Poll after poll has shown that the majority of the public is opposed to holding the Games this summer, concerned about tens of thousands of athletes and officials descending on a country that has mostly remained closed to foreigners since last year and where vaccinations have proceeded slowly.

Doctors' associations have protested holding the Games, investors have talked up the benefits of shelving them, and maverick businessmen such as Masayoshi Son have called for cancelling the games.

That Asahi, one of Japan's most prestigious newspapers, broke ranks with other partners is likely to intensify focus on the viability of the Games.

"We ask Prime Minister (Yoshihide) Suga to calmly and objectively assess the situation and decide on the cancellation of the event this summer," said the paper, a left-leaning daily often critical of Mr Suga's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

"We are far from a situation in which everybody can be confident they will be 'safe and secure,'" the paper added, invoking the government mantra about the Games. "Sadly, that is not the reality."

Several of Japan's other major dailies, such as the Nikkei, the Mainichi and the Yomiuri, are also Tokyo 2020 official partners.

The Asahi's editorial was widely shared on social media, garnering more than 30,000 tweets by late morning.

But Olympic organisers have dug in their heels, pointing to other successful sports events as evidence that the Games can go ahead as planned.

"Even baseball matches are being held currently with spectators. Why not go ahead with the Games? It's good for the economy too," Mr Kozo Yamamoto, a heavyweight politician of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and close aide to former premier Shinzo Abe, said.

"The Olympics will happen, even without spectators... Once it begins, everybody will be glad."

Much of Japan, including host city Tokyo, remains under a third state of emergency that is widely expected to be extended beyond this month, and although Japan has been spared the coronavirus ravages of overseas nations, it has struggled to control a fourth wave of infections across the country.

Just over 5 per cent of the nation has received vaccinations, and it has recorded about 719,000 infections and 12,394 deaths.

Although the majority of the population remains unvaccinated, the Japan Olympic Committee is expecting to start inoculating the Japanese Olympic delegation from June 1, the organisation said on Wednesday.

About 1,600 people, including athletes and coaches, will receive Pfizer shots that were donated by Pfizer separately from the national supply of vaccines.

"We will have the team doctors of the respective sports federations administer the shots, so as not to impact the current vaccination roll-out programme," the JOC said.

'Absurd' to go ahead

A professor of public health and adviser to the New Zealand government said on Tuesday that going ahead with the Games was "absurd" and would cost lives.

Otago University professor Michael Baker, who specialises in epidemiology and has worked on a Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group for the Ministry of Health, told Reuters the Games should be cancelled.

"I think it is absurd to have the Olympics at the present time," he said.

"I mean, if you think of the two key features of the Olympics, they involve a huge amount of international travel and mass gatherings, and they're two things that are entirely incompatible with the pandemic.

"It's going to cost lives having the Olympics at the moment. It's an optional activity. I love the Olympics, and I really feel for the athletes who trained so hard to go, but there's no reason, no justification whatsoever, to have the Olympics at the moment."

Tokyo is due to host the games from July 23 to Aug 8 after they were already postponed a year due to the pandemic. But the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have faced calls for a further postponement or cancellation because of rising coronavirus cases in Japan and elsewhere.

Several opinion polls in Japan have shown a majority of the public against holding the Olympics during a pandemic.

The IOC says measures such as mass testing and limited contact between athletes and other people involved in the games, will ensure they run smoothly.

But the IOC's "playbooks" for infection controls fail to distinguish risk levels faced by athletes or the limitations of temperature screenings and face coverings, according to a commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday.

"We believe the IOC's determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence," wrote the authors including Michael Osterholm, who served as a Covid-19 adviser on President Joe Biden's transition team.

"With less than two months until the Olympic torch is lit, cancelling the Games may be the safest option," they wrote.

Much of Japan is currently under state of emergency measures and has vaccinated just 5.2% of its population.

Baker said the only way the Games could go ahead would be with the kind of zero-tolerance approach to the virus seen in the likes of Australia and New Zealand, where international borders have been closed and quarantine imposed.

"It will be tough, it could be done, but they're not doing it," he said, describing the current approach as a "very high risk, high stakes gamble".

"They are definitely not going to have a Covid-19 free event, that's for sure, not when you have the best part of 100,000 people flying in from all around the globe," he added.

The United States on Monday issued an advisory against travel to Japan, but Japanese officials said it would not affect the Games, and the White House said on Tuesday it stood by the decision to hold the Games as planned.

The Australian softball team is set to arrive in Japan on June 1 for a pre-Olympic training camp in Gunma, a prefecture about 150km northwest of Tokyo.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.