Australia

Withdrawals, a panicked athlete and rising cases: Are the wheels coming off the Olympics already?

The vast majority of Australia’s Olympians have touched down in Japan, welcomed by a city that is desperately battling to keep its growing coronavirus outbreak under control.

A Qantas charter flight arrived at Narita Airport last night, before they spent hours waiting for saliva tests to confirm nobody is carrying the virus. 

Five days before the opening ceremony, Tokyo appears to be in trouble. 

For a month straight, the city’s curve has been rising, and with 1,300 cases recorded on July 15, it’s now at levels not seen in the capital for six months.

Health experts warn if daily case numbers continue at the current rate, it will surpass 2,400 by the closing ceremony in four weeks’ time. 

Only 20 per cent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Tokyo neighbourhood of Shibuya remains busy most evenings, while restaurants and bars remain open.(

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

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The country is about to enter its fifth wave, says Kazuhiro Tateda, a member of the government’s coronavirus expert panel.

“The uncertain element is the spread of the Delta variant and the people’s movements during the Olympic Games and [northern hemisphere] summer holidays,” he said. 

“If there’s a sudden rise in the infection numbers, it could impact the medical system in an unexpected way — we must keep it under control so we’re asking the people now [to] self-restrain.”

Olympic organisers and Japanese authorities were convinced they would be able to safely hold one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar during a pandemic. 

But as infections propelled by the Delta strain continue to soar, combined with a less-than-stellar result in recent local elections, the government banned all spectators a little over two weeks out from the Games.

Even in a state of emergency, life goes on in Tokyo. 

Schools are still open, and restaurants and bars can operate as long as they refrain from serving alcohol and shut their doors at 8:00pm. 

Even a mass gathering of baseball fans is not off the table. 

How Tokyo holds virus-free ball games

Thousands of fans poured into Tokyo Dome this week to watch the inter-city baseball derby between the Giants and the Swallows.

People were genuinely excited to be there and despite not being allowed to cheer or chant, there was still plenty of noise generated by fervent clapping.

This is the reality of Tokyo in a state of emergency, where the restrictions to stay home are requests and professional sport plays on — albeit with caps of 5,000 spectators.

A stadium filled with mask-wearing Japanese people
Despite spectators being banned from the Tokyo Olympics, thousands of fans can still watch local baseball games. (

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

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Having fans in the stadiums adds so much, according to Giants club official Harumi Hoshi. 

“I hear that directly from the players and I think it’s our responsibility to let them play in an environment which they can perform the best.

“For that reason, we will make efforts to allow a certain number of spectators.”

A few weeks ago, Olympic organisers pointed to Japanese baseball as a proven example that the Games could be held with spectators. 

A baseball player standing on one leg as he pitches a ball
Fans can watch Japan’s baseball games, as long as no more than 5,000 fans are in the stadium. (

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

)

The Yomiuri Giants, as well as other Japanese sports, have spent the last 18 months studying and sharing their information about how to hold fan-attended events with Olympic organisers.

They measured CO2 levels to work out where people congregate, used supercomputers to study particle spread from cheering and then explained all of this to fans so they understood what to do and why they were doing it.

When you arrive at your seat, you can use your mobile phone to scan a QR code, which shows how busy areas like food stands or toilets are.

“We used measures that would make people feel they want to cooperate so all the spectators can watch the game safely,” Mr Hoshi said.

The risk became too great for Olympics organisers 

Girls in baseball jerseys hold up banners in a stadium
Fans at the baseball said they were disappointed that spectators would not be allowed at the Olympics. (

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

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Baseball fans, many of whom had tickets for the Olympics, said it would be a sad event without spectators.

“It lacks the excitement. I think it’s okay to allow about half the spectators while taking countermeasures,” one fan said.

“The Games we were planning to watch were all outdoors, so I thought we were able to go. But the decision has been made. There’s nothing we can do,” said another.

The Giants said only one person has tested positive after watching a match, but there had been no cases of the infection spreading at the venue.

The highly infectious Delta variant appears to have been a big factor in the government’s decision to ban spectators from the Games. 

A fox mascot in a baseball uniform and face mask waves in a stadium
The mascot at Tokyo Dome wears a mask to remind spectators to keep theirs on for the duration of the game. (

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

)

Organisers now say the scale of the Olympics — which could have had up to 430,000 fans travelling for events around Tokyo — makes it too dangerous.

Japan’s professional baseball league by comparison, would have roughly 47,000 fans attending on any given day in the same area.

Are the wheels coming off the Games already?   

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said there was “zero” risk of Games participants infecting Japanese residents. 

Organisers have imposed Olympics “bubbles” to prevent further transmission of COVID-19, but one Australian athlete, basketballer Liz Cambage withdrew because she did not believe she could cope with the arrangement.

Medical experts also are worried that the bubbles might not be tight enough to prevent viral spread. 

A crowd of people wait to cross Shibuya crossing in Tokyo
The IOC says there is “zero” chance of transmission from foreign athletes and officials to members of the Japanese public. (

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

)

“It encloses the risk and it’s a good idea. But it’s difficult to have a perfect bubble,” Professor Tateda said.

“They need to find out the risk immediately and take measures.”

A number of infections have emerged among several visiting athletes and people involved with the Games.

Australia’s top ranked tennis player tested positive on July 16 before departing for Tokyo and was out of the team.

Alex de Minaur said he was “shattered” by the news.

On the same day, an Olympic athlete under a 14-day quarantine period has tested positive in Tokyo. The organising committee did not disclose any details about the athlete.

The Tokyo Olympics athletes village main dining area behind a sign saying 'Tokyo 2020'
Athletes will exist in “Olympic bubbles” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (

ABC News: Jake Sturmer

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And eight members of the Kenyan women’s rugby team, who were set to hold a training camp in Kurume, were classified as close contacts of a passenger on their flight to Tokyo who tested positive for COVID-19, a city official said.

The eight athletes had all tested negative on arrival at the airport, the official added, and will be staying at an accommodation facility in Tokyo until the Games.

Isolating positive cases or close contacts is proving frustrating for athletes as they want to train for the biggest event of their careers. 

Seven workers at a hotel hosting the Brazilian judo team in the city of Hamamatsu tested positive for the virus, putting the athletes into isolation.

“Today we’re living in a hotel where there’s no one else but us,” Ney Wilson, the frustrated team leader said. 

“We can’t even touch the buttons in the elevators, there’s a person there to do that for us.

“These are the patience Games.”

A huge lightning bolt in the sky over Tokyo
The city of Tokyo is hoping an influx of foreigners for the Games won’t worsen their growing outbreak. (

Kyodo via Reuters

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