The Guardian’s picture editors select photo highlights from around the world
The Guardian’s picture editors select photo highlights from around the world
Sections of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay could be scaled down or even cancelled if spectators lining the route fail to observe coronavirus restrictions, Games organisers have warned.
Spectators who turn out to watch the torch as it begins its journey around Japan next week must wear masks, avoid cheering loudly and keep a safe distance from one another, the Tokyo 2020 organising committee said on Tuesday.
“Please watch from the streets, but ensure you are physically distanced from everyone else,” Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, said at a briefing on Tuesday. “We want you to ensure your safety while you are watching the relay.”
The prestigious event, which marks the official countdown to the postponed Games, will begin in Fukushima on 25 March, just four days after Tokyo is scheduled to lift a state of emergency declared in early January amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the capital. The city reported 300 new infections on Tuesday, up from 290 a week earlier and bringing its total caseload to almost 16,000.
The relay opening ceremony at J-Village – a football training complex that became the nerve centre for the response to the March 2011 meltdown at nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station – will be held without spectators.
Once the torch, initially carried by members of the women’s national football squad, reaches surrounding streets, spectators will be expected to follow the rules or risk seeing the relay leg cancelled, Hidemasa Nakamura, the Tokyo 2020 Games delivery officer, said.
If, for example, people were touching shoulders, “we would send out a request for them to spread out”, Nakamura said, adding that police could be called on to repeat the request if people refused to move. “If there is still congestion, then there could be a stronger message,” he said.
Organisers outlined the measures hours after the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, received the first of two Covid-19 vaccinations before his trip to Washington next month to meet the US president, Joe Biden.
A masked Suga rolled up his shirt sleeve and did not appear to experience any discomfort as the vaccine was administered in front of TV cameras at a Tokyo hospital.
Suga, who is 72, had indicated he would not be vaccinated until 36 million people aged 65 or over become eligible for the jab in mid-April, but the Japanese and US governments reportedly agreed to take precautions. Biden received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine before his inauguration in January.
Japan has so far vaccinated tens of thousands of medical workers, some of whom have been asked to monitor their health for possible side-effects.
Japan was the last G7 nation to begin its vaccination programme, and much of the country will still be unprotected by the time the Olympic torch is carried into the main stadium in Tokyo for the Games’ opening ceremony on 23 July.
People with existing conditions, care home staff and those aged 60-64 will be immunised from June, the health ministry has said, but no timeline has been given for people aged between 16 and 60.
Supply issues and vaccine hesitancy could further delay the rollout. A poll by the Kyodo news agency last month found only 63.1% of people said they wanted to be inoculated, with 27.4% saying they did not want the jab.
Suga has said he will secure enough doses for Japan’s 126 million people in the first half of this year, although the under-16s will not be inoculated.
The unusual provisions for the relay are another sign of the difficulties organisers face as they attempt to carry off an event involving tens of thousands of athletes, officials, sponsors and journalists in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The option of cancelling or dramatically scaling down the relay reportedly gained little traction with organisers, partly because its sponsors include corporate giants such as Toyota and Coca-Cola.
About 10,000 torchbearers will carry the symbol of the Games through 859 locations in Japan’s 47 prefectures, culminating in its arrival at the Olympic stadium.
But the runners will not include the footballer Nahomi Kawasumi, who confirmed she would not take part due to Covid-19 fears.
“Again, I will decline to be a torch relay runner,” she tweeted on Monday. “I made this decision because the infectious disease problem has not yet been resolved and I live in the United States.”
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.
The Liberal Democrats have warned China against “international bullying” after a call by UK MPs for countries to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics was met by a warning of potential sanctions.
Last week, Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, joined with the Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant in demanding that the government and the British Olympic Association act over the mass repression of the Muslim Uighur population in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, which campaigners say constitutes genocide.
The editor of China’s state-run Global Times newspaper responded by saying countries who boycotted the Games could face consequences.
“Boycotting 2022 Beijing Winter Games, an unpopular idea, won’t receive wide support,” Hu Xijin tweeted. “IOC [International Olympic Commission] and athletes will both oppose it, and China will seriously sanction any country that follows such a call.”
While Hu is an editor rather than an official, China often uses state-run media to push government messages.
In a letter to China’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Chen Wen – the longtime ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, is departing, and his successor is not yet in place – Davey said he was seeking “an urgent response” to Hu’s claims in the tweet.
“Such an action would be an act of international bullying, and immensely damaging to China’s standing in the world,” Davey wrote. “I urge you to clarify immediately the position of the Chinese government on this sanctions threat.”
In the letter, Davey reiterated his call for a boycott, saying the evidence of genocide against Uighur people “is now overwhelming”.
He said: “It is why I believe Britain and our athletes must not take part in the Winter Olympics in China. If we did, knowing what we know, our presence would be seen as cover for a Chinese government committing genocide against its own people.
“No country wants to pull their athletes out of such major international sporting occasions, but we cannot compromise when it comes to crimes of this nature.”
There is increasing evidence and testimony of mass abuses against Uighur people by the Chinese state, including large-scale internment in camps, forced labour, religious repression, and reports of systematic rape and mandatory sterilisation.
The UK has so far stopped short of calling events in Xinjiang genocide – and has blocked parliamentary efforts to bar trade deals with countries accused of it – although Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has said they amount to torture.
Liu, the outgoing Chinese ambassador, achieved wider prominence in the UK last year when, shown footage of shackled prisoners being herded on to trains in Xinjiang, he told the BBC that the images did not prove any mistreatment.
The head of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic organising committee has resigned, a week after his derogatory comments about women triggered an international backlash.
“My inappropriate remarks have caused chaos, and I would like to express my deepest apologies to the members of the council and executive board, as well as the entire community,” Yoshiro Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, told a meeting of the Tokyo 2020 executive board on Friday.
“The important thing is that the Olympic Games are held in July. If I am going to be [an obstacle] to their delivery by remaining in my position, then that is something we should avoid.
“The Games should continue under new leadership, so I’m announcing today that I’m stepping down as president of the organising committee.”
His rumoured successor, Saburō Kawabuchi, withdrew his candidacy on Friday amid criticism that he had been approached by Mori with little discussion or transparency.
Mori’s resignation – and failed attempt to install Kawabuchi as his successor – came after the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, had reportedly suggested appointing a woman, or a younger man, only for Mori to approach Kawabuchi, the 84-year-old “mayor” of the Tokyo athletes’ village and a former chairman of the Japan Football Association.
Fuji News Network reported the government had sought to block Kawabuchi’s nomination. “We can’t give the impression that things have changed unless we install a woman or see a generational shift,” the broadcaster cited a government source as saying.
The Mori controversy had done “serious reputation damage” to the Tokyo Olympics, said one source involved in the Games. The source, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said many officials wanted a woman to replace Mori.
Local media said the Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, who has represented Japan at the summer and winter Olympics as a track cyclist and speed skater, was being considered as a possible candidate.
The organising committee is to set up a panel – comprising an equal number of men and women – to select a successor, Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of Tokyo 2020, told reporters. “The process has to be transparent,” he said, adding that Mori’s resignation “should not cause any delay in preparations for the Games”.
Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, said he “fully respects” Mori’s decision to step down and “understands his reasons for doing so”.
Bach added: “At the same time, we would like to thank him for his outstanding contribution to the organisation of the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 over the course of the past years.
“Among his many accomplishments, President Mori helped to make Tokyo the best-ever-prepared Olympic city. The IOC will continue working hand-in-hand with his successor to deliver safe and secure Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021.”
Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, said he hoped something good would come out of the controversy.
“I sincerely hope that the domestic and international reaction over the last seven days can be harnessed so that society places greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion, not just in terms of gender representation, but race, sexuality, and persons with disabilities,” he said.
“This world is a wonderful and diverse place and it is important we embrace inclusion to get the best out of each and every one of us to benefit society as a whole.”
Mori came under pressure to resign after he complained during a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee early this month that talkative women tended to make meetings “drag on too long”.
Referring to his time as chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union, the 83-year-old said: “Women have a strong sense of rivalry. If one raises her hand to speak, all the others feel the need to speak, too. Everyone ends up saying something.”
He later apologised and retracted the remarks – conceding that they had been “inappropriate” – but the fallout only intensified, frustrating attempts by the Tokyo 2020 organisers and the International Olympic Committee to convince the world it would be possible to hold the Games during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tokyo 2020 and IOC officials have insisted that the Games, which were postponed by a year due to the pandemic, will open on 23 July, despite strong opposition among the Japanese public and concern among health experts that the event could spark a fresh outbreak of the virus in Japan.
Earlier this month, organisers published the first of a series of “playbooks“ for athletes, officials and journalists outlining a host of measures they say will ensure the Olympics and Paralympics can go ahead safely. These include regular testing for athletes, a ban on eating out and sight-seeing, and dedicated transport to ferry competitors between their accommodation and sports venues.
Mori, who has a history of making insensitive and controversial remarks, defended his treatment of women in the Olympic movement.
“I didn’t mean for [my remarks] to be neglectful of women but I guess it was broadcasted in that way,” he said. “I actually worked a lot to allow women to be able to ‘voice out’, even more than men.
“There were times when the women were not speaking out but I had appointed a couple of women so I could give them an environment and an opportunity to state whatever it was they wanted to say.”