Olympics: IOC chief Bach confident of hosting spectators at Games after meeting Japan PM

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on Nov 16, 2020.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on Nov 16, 2020.PHOTO: AFP
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach in Tokyo on Nov 15, during a two-day visit to Japan.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach in Tokyo on Nov 15, during a two-day visit to Japan.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (REUTERS) - International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Thomas Bach is “very, very confident” that spectators can attend next year’s postponed Games, he said on Monday (Nov 16), after a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, where the two bumped fists in greeting.

As president of the IOC, Bach is visiting Japan for two days of meetings with Games organisers to discuss countermeasures against the coronavirus and other issues.

The visit is his first to the Japanese capital since he and former prime minister Shinzo Abe decided in March to postpone the Games to 2021 because of the pandemic.

The IOC president spent the day with the Tokyo organisers discussing how to stage the massive sporting event during an unprecedented pandemic and ensure safety for a gathering of more than 11,000 international athletes.

Mr Suga and Bach spoke through white surgical masks at Monday’s meeting. The Japanese PM, who succeeded Mr Abe in September, reiterated his commitment to hosting the Games, saying he looked forward to working closely with Bach and the IOC on the preparations.

Later, the IOC chief told reporters that Games organisers in Japan and the IOC would contribute to hosting a safe event.

“This makes us also very, very confident that we can have spectators,” he added.

The IOC will arrange to ensure vaccination of both participants and visitors before they arrive in Japan, he added.

“In order to protect the Japanese people, and out of respect for the Japanese people, the IOC will undertake great effort so that ... the Olympic participants and visitors will arrive here vaccinated if, by then, a vaccine is available,” he said.

Later on Monday, Bach also awarded Mr Abe the Olympic Order in gold, the IOC’s highest accolade. He also visited the newly-built National Stadium and met Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

At a news conference, he said he would not make vaccination a requirement for Games participants, however.

After meeting Ms Koike, Bach approached a handful of protesters who were holding banners and using loudspeakers to press their demand for cancellation of the Olympics.

“Do you want to speak or do you want to shout?” he asked, as security guards stood between him and one protester. But the protesters rebuffed his offer of dialogue, he told the news conference.

When premier, Mr Abe made himself all but synonymous with Tokyo 2020, even famously appearing as video game character Mario at the closing ceremony of the Rio Games in 2016.

He played a critical role in Tokyo’s bid to win the Olympics, making the campaign a national priority.

Bach's visit comes a week after Tokyo successfully hosted a one-off international gymnastics meet at which the organisers tested a range of Covid-19 countermeasures.

He called next year’s Games a “light at the end of the tunnel” after the world’s pandemic battle, and pointed to recent sporting competitions in Japan as proof that events could already take place safely, saying the IOC was now “very confident” that spectators would be able to attend the Games.

But he told reporters it was not realistic to put a figure on the cost of the postponement until next year’s virus precautions are ascertained.

News of a potentially successful vaccine from Pfizer Inc has lifted hopes for the staging of the Games, but public opinion in Japan remains mixed.

Nearly 60 per cent of respondents in a November poll by TV Asahi said the event should be further postponed or cancelled.

In contrast, most Japanese firms want the Games to go ahead next summer, even though they admit their contribution to the economy would be limited. As many as 68 per cent of large and medium-sized non-financial companies surveyed by Reuters from Oct 26 to Nov 4 believe the Games should go ahead, with three-quarters saying that spectator numbers should be restricted.