People who turn out to catch a glimpse of the Olympic torch during its journey through Japan from the end of next month will be asked to applaud rather than cheer passing runners, and the event could be suspended if crowds lining the relay route grow too large.
The unusual provisions for the relay – the main precursor to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – are another sign of the difficulties organisers face as they attempt to carry off an event involving tens of thousands of athletes, officials and journalists in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Tokyo Games organising committee said it would broadcast the relay live when it begins in Fukushima on 25 March to encourage people to watch it at home.
About 10,000 torchbearers will carry the prestigious symbol of the Games through 859 locations in Japan’s 47 prefectures, culminating in its arrival at the main Olympic stadium on 23 July. One prefecture recently said it was reconsidering its involvement due to concerns over the virus.
“No shouting, no cheering. Please cheer by clapping your hands, and maintain an appropriate distance in case there is overcrowding,” Yukihiko Nunomura, the vice director general of the organising committee, told a media briefing on Thursday.
“If it turns out that there are dense crowds on the streets, the torch relay can be stopped as we prioritise safety and security.”
Any discussion of cancelling or scaling down the relay – which will begin at the J-Village football complex in the Fukushima village of Naraha – reportedly gained little momentum, partly because its sponsors include corporate giants such as Toyota and Coca-Cola.
Preparations for the Games, which are opposed by most people in Japan, have been further frustrated by the resignations over the past month of 1,000 volunteers, many of them angered by sexist comments made by the organising committee’s former president, Yoshiro Mori.
Organisers said not all of the people who quit cited Mori, who was replaced by Seiko Hashimoto, as the reason. Surveys indicate that some are also concerned about the coronavirus.
The organisers added, however, that they didn’t expect the resignations to affect the Games, noting that only a small proportion of the 80,000 volunteers had pulled out. The Tokyo metropolitan government has recruited another 30,000 volunteers.
Few people in Japan are likely to have been vaccinated by the time the Games open, adding to concerns that the arrival of large numbers of Olympics-related staff in Tokyo could trigger a fresh outbreak of the virus.
Japan has avoided the large numbers of cases and deaths seen in the US and Europe, but its vaccine rollout has barely begun less than five months before the opening ceremony.
The country’s vaccine tsar, Taro Kono, told reporters on Wednesday that the Olympics were “not on my schedule at all”.
Athletes are being encouraged to get vaccinated against Covid-19 before arriving in Tokyo, but jabs will not be compulsory, John Coates, vice president of the International Olympic Committee, said on Thursday.
“Not compulsory, we can’t do that,” Coates, who heads the IOC’s coordination commission for the Tokyo Games, told reporters in Brisbane.
“But it is certainly being encouraged and the IOC has an agreement with Covax where it’s helping to facilitate the distribution of vaccines,” he said, referring to the World Health Organisation’s global vaccine-sharing scheme.
Coates added, however, that he expected Australia’s athletes to be vaccinated by June “at the latest”.
He said the Japanese government was expected to make a decision on how many fans could attend Olympic events by April.
“A final decision will be taken by the Japanese government, it’s governments that decide these things on what’s safe and, a bit later, probably March, April … a decision on what venue capacity we are going to have,” he said.