TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who memorably dressed up as the titular plumber from the Super Mario video game to promote the Tokyo Olympics in Rio, will not attend the opening ceremony, public broadcaster NHK and other media reported.
Mr Abe, 66, played an outsized role in attracting the Olympics to Tokyo, pledging in front of a banquet room full of International Olympic Committee members in 2013 that the lingering nuclear disaster at Fukushima was "under control" and pitching his nation as a "passionate, proud, and a strong believer" in the Olympics.
Mr Abe stepped down from office last year due to health reasons, and his replacement as prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is expected to attend. Mr Abe's office could not immediately be reached on Thursday (July 22), a public holiday in Japan.
Still, the opening ceremony on Friday, which normally stands as a major showcase of the host nation, is set to be a subdued affair, with Japanese media reporting that less than 950 people - including only around 15 global leaders - are set to attend.
With surging Covid-19 cases in and around Tokyo, organisers have ruled out spectators at most Olympic events.
First Lady Jill Biden is expected to land in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon for the Games' opening ceremony, raising expectations she might also use her attendance to discuss vaccines with Mr Suga.
Mrs Biden has been travelling across the United States urging more people in the country to get inoculated.
Mr Suga is preparing to negotiate directly with Pfizer Inc to get early delivery of doses, domestic media reported on Thursday.
Only a third of Japanese have had at least one dose of the vaccine, fuelling public concerns that the Olympics could become a super-spreader event. Already dozens of attendees have tested positive for Covid-19, forcing athlete withdrawals and teammates into isolation.
NHK said Mr Abe decided against attending the ceremony after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions over Tokyo, in an effort to minimise health risks among residents and visitors.
Covid-19 infections have jumped in the capital and are projected to spike further, straining healthcare providers.
In a recent poll in the Asahi newspaper, 68 per cent of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organisers to control coronavirus infections, with 55 per cent saying they opposed the Games going ahead.
Olympics competition has already begun, with the Japanese women's softball team getting the hosts off to a winning start on Wednesday, while the highly ranked US women's football team were upset by Sweden.
More football and softball matches are scheduled for Thursday.