Just a day after announcing that local spectators in Japan would be allowed to attend the Tokyo Olympics this summer despite fears surrounding Covid-19, the chairman of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee told NBC News that spectators could still be turned away.
President Seiko Hashimoto, speaking exclusively to NBC News, said on Tuesday that plans to allow viewers could change if Covid-19 infections increase.
“We can potentially lower the number of spectators, a cap on spectators or… no spectators,” she said via an interpreter.
She added that games and sporting events could also be canceled once they start if athletes tested positive for the virus, although she admitted it would be a “very difficult decision” to make and was proof additional “unprecedented” challenges faced by Tokyo Games.
NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News, owns the US media rights to the upcoming Olympics.
On Monday, Olympic officials said venues in Japan would be limited to 50 percent of their capacity, with up to 10,000 domestic fans able to attend the events when the games open next month.
The decision was made by all five parties involved in organizing the games: the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, the Tokyo Olympic Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Government of Japan.
However, opinion polls have repeatedly shown that more than 80% of Japanese do not think gambling should take place during the pandemic and some have protested. The decision to go ahead has also been criticized by some Japanese health experts, fearing an increase in Covid-19 cases or the birth of a new variant as a result of the games.
Over the weekend, a member of the Ugandan Olympic team tested positive for coronavirus and was barred from entering Japan in the first infection detected among arriving athletes.
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Hashimoto, a former speed skater and Olympic cyclist, was chosen as chairman of the Tokyo organizing committee in February, replacing Yoshiro Mori who resigned after igniting fury with sexist comments.
Hashimoto has competed in seven summer and winter Olympics and is now the head of one of the biggest sporting events in the world. She said she understood the postponement of last year’s games and that the current restrictions were “emotionally difficult” for the athletes, but that an extra year of preparation could also be a boon.
She said she hoped the opening ceremony would be “uplifting and glorious” and bring a sense of joy to the games, marred by the pandemic.
“I want the opening ceremony to throw a very warm light into the hearts of all who are watching,” she said.
In addition to spectator limits, organizers also said masks must be worn at all times at game venues, and that shouting and speaking loudly will be prohibited.
Tokyo and other areas are currently under “near emergency” status until July 11. This replaced a more stringent comprehensive state of emergency that was in effect until last weekend. Japan has reported 786,566 cases and 14,408 deaths from the coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday.
The Olympic Games, which were originally scheduled to take place in 2020, have been postponed until this summer and are scheduled to open on July 23.
Fans from overseas were banned in March from traveling to Japan for the games due to the pandemic. However, organizers claim that between 3.6 and 3.7 million tickets have been sold to Japanese residents so far.
“I feel very responsible because we have to be very well prepared for the games,” said Hashimoto. “But at the same time, I feel the excitement,” she added.
Keir simmons, Laura Saravia and Arata Yamamoto contributed.