Japan’s Sapporo unprepared for Olympics amid COVID-19 resurgence

When the Olympic organizers moved the marathon event from Tokyo to the northern city of Sapporo, they did so out of concern about the intense summer heat in the Japanese capital.

Two years later, critics say the organizers effectively jumped off the skillet and into the fire.

Sapporo is currently in a state of COVID-19 emergency amid a resurgence of coronavirus infections.

Officials in the city say they still have no key information, including the number of athletes to expect and health facility details, while residents’ resistance to hosting part of the world’s largest multisport event has increased.

“There is no action yet,” said Takashi Okugi, a Sapporo City official in charge of Olympic preparations. “We don’t have enough time.”

In less than two months, Hokkaido, the northernmost island where Sapporo is the capital, has the second highest Covid-19 rate per capita in Japan, about 43% higher than Tokyo. Almost two thirds of the new cases are in Sapporo with just under 2 million inhabitants.

City officials and local residents are nervous about the influx of athletes and support workers at a time when the city’s medical system is already overloaded.

Okugi said officials had repeatedly made inquiries to the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee asking for essential details on issues, including which hospitals would be designated to treat infected participants.

“As of now, many of the responses we are hearing have not yet been decided or are under review,” said Okugi. “Without a clear structure, we cannot yet estimate how badly the city’s medical system may be affected, so we want information from the organizing committee quickly.”

The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee said that around 340 athletes would compete in the marathon and running races in Sapporo, but the number of staff and officials involved in the Sapporo competitions is currently under review.

“We will continue to seek the understanding and support of local residents through clear and careful communication,” the committee told Reuters via email, adding that it holds working group meetings with Sapporo and Hokkaido officials every four to six weeks.

Senior Japanese government officials and Olympic organizers have pledged to hold “safe” games by implementing strict coronavirus measures.

A spectator lifts a paper sign reading “It is impossible to hold the Olympics to face reality” during the half marathon as part of the 2021 Hokkaido Sapporo Marathon Festival, a test event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics marathon race “, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan, May 5, 2021, in this photo released by Kyodo. Kyodo / via REUTERS

LOCAL DISCLAIMER

Sapporo held a half marathon early last month as a test event for the upcoming games. All participants, including six international athletes, had to record their temperature every day in the week before the event and answer a health questionnaire.

With infections already increasing in the city, organizers urged spectators not to come and watch the test race. The staff wore masks and sometimes face shields and plastic gloves.

Sebastian Coe, head of World Athletics, gave the test event high marks and said organizers were able to provide both the running of the race and their COVID-19 countermeasures. Continue reading

The organizers have already decided not to allow international spectators to attend the Games, but have yet to announce whether local spectators will be able to attend.

Okugi said the uncertainty meant plans have not yet been made to accommodate spectators in Sapporo, which will also host soccer games and race-walk events during the July and August Games.

Many locals who welcomed the 1972 Winter Olympics are less keen on their summer cousin in the current circumstances.

More than a dozen civic groups in Hokkaido Prefecture filed a petition this week to ask the governor to cancel all planned events in the city.

“There aren’t enough hospital beds. The Hokkaido medical system is already collapsing,” said Masamichi Nishio, doctor and honorary director of the Hokkaido Cancer Center, one of the campaign representatives.

Takako Ishido, a Hokkaido Prefecture official working on Olympic Games planning, said she agreed with petition organizers that residents’ safety was a priority.

Ishido said it was difficult to assess infection risks without an estimate of likely visitors to the city and requested more detailed information from the organizers of the games.

Nishio said many Sapporo residents with serious illnesses were unable to get immediate treatment as hospital rooms were filled with COVID-19 cases.

“Why should we have the Olympics here? Who will be responsible for people who die of coronavirus after the Olympics?” he said. “The government doesn’t care about our lives.”

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