Coronavirus Cases Overshadow Last-Minute Preparations in Japan

Reflections on a window overlooking a view of the Olympic stadium in Tokyo.
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

TOKYO — The opening ceremony is Friday and the first competitions are Wednesday. But organizers of the Tokyo Olympics, delayed one year by the pandemic, are struggling to manage public anxiety about the Games after an outbreak of coronavirus cases that threaten to overshadow the festivities.

As about 20,000 athletes, coaches, referees and other officials have poured into Japan in recent days, more than two dozen of them have tested positive for the virus, including three cases within the Olympic Village. An additional 33 staff members or contractors who are Japanese residents working on the Games have tested positive.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee confirmed Monday that an alternate on the women’s gymnastics team had tested positive for the coronavirus while in training in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo.

Kara Eaker, 18, of Grain Valley, Mo., tested positive early Monday and began a 10 to 14 day quarantine, her coach, Al Fong, said in a text message later that day from Tokyo. He added that she “feels fine.” Last month, in a video call with reporters, Eaker said she had received the vaccine.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Fong also said that Leanne Wong, another alternate and Eaker’s teammate at his GAGE Center gym in Blue Springs, Mo., is also under quarantine because she is a considered a close contact. She is expected to remain in quarantine until about July 31, the coach said.

Wong, who is 17 and from Overland Park, Kansas, said at the Olympic trials earlier this month that she had not been vaccinated. Asked why she had made that choice, she said she wasn’t sure.

“I haven’t really talked to my parents about it much,” Wong said. “But I know they’re scientists, and they develop drugs as well, so they’re just waiting to get the vaccine.”

Olympics organizers have said their measures — including repeated testing, social distancing and restrictions on movement — would limit, but not eliminate, coronavirus cases. The Games, originally scheduled for 2020, were postponed a year in the hopes the pandemic would have eased by then and they would herald a triumphant return to normal.

Instead, they have become a reminder of the staying power of the virus and have fed a debate over whether Japan and the International Olympic Committee have their priorities straight.

Such is the unease that Toyota, one of the prime corporate sponsors of the Games, announced Monday it would not run any Olympic-themed television advertisements during them.

“There are many issues with these Games that are proving difficult to be understood,” Jun Nagata, the company’s chief communications officer, told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

The three people who tested positive inside the Olympic Village were from the South African soccer team, including two athletes and one official. They were isolated in a separate building while an additional 21 people in close contact with them are quarantining in their rooms.

Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Tokyo organizing committee, said athletes who were in close contact with those who tested positive would be allowed to train if they otherwise follow the isolation restrictions. Athletes are tested daily and if they test negative within six hours of a competition, they will be allowed to play.

Another six athletes and two Olympics staff members from Britain were also isolating after they had been informed that they had sat near a person on their flight to Tokyo who had tested positive for the coronavirus at the airport.

The Associated Press reported that Ondřej Perušič’, a beach volleyball player competing for the Czech Republic, had also tested positive in the Olympic Village.

At a news conference over the weekend, Christophe Dubi, the International Olympic Committee’s sports director, said “there is no such thing as zero risk,” adding that through testing and rigorous contact tracing and quick isolation, the Olympic Village would be “a Covid-safe environment but not Covid free.”

The Japanese public remains anxious about the staging of the Olympics amid a slow rollout of vaccines and a recent rise in coronavirus cases in the capital. Daily case counts have exceeded 1,000 for several days for the first time since mid-May. Tokyo is under a state of emergency. A poll by the Kyodo News, a wire service, released over the weekend showed 87 percent of those surveyed said they were worried about hosting the Olympics during the pandemic.

The Games begin at 9 a.m. Tokyo time Wednesday, when Australia and Japan play the first game of a softball triple header.
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The Summer Olympics always start a couple of days before the opening ceremony, which is Friday.

The Games even have a nomenclature for these early bird events. Saturday, when the Olympics really get going, is officially Day 1; the opening ceremony takes place on Day 0, and the earlier competitions are Days -1 and -2.

So here’s what’s on tap for Day -2, better known as Wednesday (or Tuesday night in the Eastern United States).

The Games begin at 9 a.m. Tokyo time (8 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday) when Australia and Japan play the first game of a softball triple header. The United States, which plays Italy three hours later, is the heavy softball favorite, but Japan is considered to have the best chance to upset the Americans.

Later in the day, six women’s soccer games will get underway, including the World Cup champion, the United States, against Sweden at 5:30 p.m. (4:30 a.m. Eastern for the early birds).

On Day -1, or Thursday if you insist, men’s soccer and softball games are scheduled. The U.S. softball team plays its second game of the tournament, against Canada, after which the favored home team Japan takes on Mexico. (The baseball tournament starts July 28 with the U.S. team playing its first game on July 30; an earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the U.S. baseball team begins play on Thursday.)

In men’s soccer, one of the marquee matches of pool play will match two of the favorites: Germany and Brazil.

Two more sports get underway on Friday, Day 0, before the opening ceremony at 8 p.m. Tokyo time (7 a.m. Eastern). There are several heats in rowing, and an archery round that serves to rank the competitors for the later knockout stages.

Also listed on the schedule are “pre-event training” in shooting and a “horse inspection” for equestrians.

One thing all these preamble events have in common: None will eliminate any athletes or teams. When the opening ceremony begins, everyone will still theoretically have a shot at gold.

The hot sand at the beach volleyball practice court had to be hosed down to facilitate play.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

TOKYO — It is almost too hot for beach volleyball.

The Summer Olympics are expected to be the hottest on record, and the potentially dangerous heat is already having an impact days before Friday’s opening ceremony.

Tokyo citizens this week are being warned not to exercise outside, but Olympic athletes have little choice but to confront the city’s wicked — and sometimes deadly — combination of heat and humidity.

At outdoor venues around the city, like Shiokaze Park, home of beach volleyball, last-minute preparations are being made to protect athletes, officials and volunteers.

During training sessions on Monday morning, volleyball players found the sand too hot for their feet. Workers hosed down the sand to make it palatable, and athletes huddled under umbrellas to hide from the searing sun.

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment uses a color-coded scale to warn residents about the dangers. Much of Monday in Tokyo was categorized as “orange (severe warning),” because of temperatures 82.4 to 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit (28 to 31 degrees Celsius).

“Heavy exercise prohibited,” the warning stated.

In some parts of central Tokyo, afternoon temperatures over 88 degrees (31 Celsius) elicited a higher warning: “Exercise prohibited.”

In Hachioji, a suburb west of Tokyo, up to 32 people were hospitalized Monday with heatstroke, according to a local television report.

Japan takes the heat seriously. In 2018 and 2019, more than 1,000 people died of heat-related illnesses, the government reported.

The worry grows with global warming, but it is not new. Tokyo held the 1964 Summer Games in October largely to avoid the midsummer heat, but never pitched the 2020 Olympics outside of the July and August time frame that the International Olympic Committee and broadcast partners like NBC prefer. Concerns over heat danger were raised in 2013 when the city was awarded the 2020 Summer Games.

Tokyo vowed to install all sorts of cooling measures, from the practical to the whimsical.

The proposed marathon course was coated with a heat-reflecting material in 2019, but the race was eventually moved to Sapporo, about 500 miles away and usually cooler than Tokyo. (On Monday, Sapporo was expected to reach 91 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Other plans are being put into place, including extra cooling tents, misting fans and ice-packed vests for officials. Some events will have air-conditioned lounges and ice baths available for athletes. Equestrian will have a shaded “horse cooling station.”

While heat-index monitors will track conditions at the venues, it is unclear what thresholds must be reached to stop or postpone events.

One big worry for the past few years has been protecting hundreds of thousands of fans — an issue that was erased by the pandemic, as events will be contested in mostly empty venues.

The forecast for the rest of this week suggests no relief on the way.

Some events were intentionally scheduled during cooler hours. The sun sets around 7 p.m., and temperatures tend to fall overnight to about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. But with sunrise well before 5 a.m., temperatures typically rise quickly in the morning.

Road cycling, for example, on a 151-mile course, will hold its men’s event on Saturday beginning at 11 a.m. local time, in the midday heat.

Beach volleyball begins Saturday, too, with matches scheduled all day. The forecast: hot sand and ample concern.

As part of Toyota’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games, much of Tokyo’s taxi fleet was replaced with a sleek, new Toyota model.
Issei Kato/Reuters

Toyota said on Monday that it had decided against running Olympics-themed television advertisements in Japan, a symbolic vote of no confidence from one of the country’s most influential companies just days before the Games begin amid a national state of emergency.

The Japanese public has expressed strong opposition to the Games — delayed for a year because of the pandemic — with many worrying that the influx of visitors from around the world could turn it into a Covid-19 superspreader event, undoing national efforts to keep coronavirus levels low.

Toyota will refrain from airing television ads at home during the Games, and its chief executive, Akio Toyoda, will not attend the opening ceremony, a company spokesman told local news media during an online news conference.

“Various aspects of this Olympics aren’t accepted by the public,” said the spokesman, Jun Nagata, according to the business daily Yomiuri Shimbun.

The ads will still be shown in other markets, Toyota Motor North America said in a statement. “In the U.S., the campaign has already been shown nationally and will continue to be shown as planned with our media partners during the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” the statement said.

The company had prepared ads for the event but will not air them because of concerns that emphasizing its connection to the Games could create a backlash, said a person familiar with the company’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Toyota will continue its commitments to supporting Olympic athletes and providing transportation services during the Games, a spokesman said.

The company’s decision is “a big body blow to the Olympics,” said David Droga, the founder of the Droga5 ad agency.

“You’d think that Toyota would be through thick and thin all in, but obviously the situation is more polarizing than we realize,” he said.

The vast majority of the Japanese public is opposed to holding the Games — set to begin on Friday — under current conditions, polling shows, with many calling for them to be canceled outright.

The Japanese authorities and Olympic officials have played down the concerns, saying strict precautions against the coronavirus will allow the Games to be held safely.

Anxieties have continued to mount, however. This month, Tokyo entered its fourth state of emergency in an effort to stop a sudden rise in virus cases as the country faces the more contagious Delta variant. Cases, which remain low in comparison with many other developed nations, have exceeded 1,000 a day in the city, raising apprehension that measures that had succeeded in controlling the spread of the coronavirus could be losing their effectiveness.

Further complicating the situation is a steady drip of news reports about Olympic staff and athletes testing positive for the illness after arriving in Japan.

Toyota became a top Olympic sponsor in 2015, joining an elite class of corporate supporters that pay top dollar for the right to display the iconic rings of the Games in their advertising.

Until the pandemic hit, the company was one of the most visible supporters of the Olympics. In the run-up to the event, much of Tokyo’s taxi fleet was replaced with a sleek, new Toyota model prominently featuring the company’s logo alongside the Olympic rings. And the company pledged to make the event a showcase for its technological innovations, including self-driving vehicles to ferry athletes around the Olympic Village.

Toyota’s move could prompt other brands to follow suit, but several advertising experts do not expect a ripple effect.

“If you’re a Coca-Cola type, I don’t think it’ll be a retreat — the benefits of being a global sponsor will still work its magic in the U.S. and all the other countries,” Mr. Droga said. “It’s different when you’re in the center, actually in Japan, because that’s where the biggest contrast is going to be, where the Olympics aren’t like previous Olympics.”

Many companies are afraid of sacrificing more exposure, said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

My guess is that they’re going to try and push through so that they don’t lose the investment completely,” he said. “There’s an interesting calculus: If I pull out, how does that get translated in every language? In certain countries, it could seem like I did the right thing, but in others, it could be that I abandoned the one thing that gave the world hope.”

South Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choi Jong-kun, right, speaks with Koichi Aiboshi, the Japanese ambassador to South Korea, who was summoned to the meeting in a diplomatic squabble.
South Korean Foreign Ministry, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SEOUL — South Korea said on Monday that its president, Moon Jae-in, will not visit Tokyo during the Olympics, scrapping plans for his first-ever summit meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan.

The decision came days after a senior Japanese diplomat in Seoul was accused of making a belittling comment against Mr. Moon. The diplomatic squabble was likely to further inflame relations, despite Washington’s hopes that its two most important allies in East Asia would overcome their historical disputes and work closer together to counter North Korea and China.

The talks between Seoul and Tokyo to arrange an Olympics summit meeting had made significant progress, Seoul officials said. But they unraveled after JTBC, a South Korean cable channel, reported on Friday that Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, ridiculed Mr. Moon with a lewd comment during a meeting with one of its reporters.

Mr. Moon’s diplomatic overtures toward Japan are tantamount to “masturbating” because Japan “does not have the time to care about bilateral relations as much as South Korea hopes,” Mr. Soma was quoted as saying.

Koichi Aiboshi, the Japanese ambassador to Seoul, said Mr. Soma’s comment, although “inappropriate,” was not directed against Mr. Moon. During a regular press briefing in Tokyo on Monday, Katsunobu Kato, the chief cabinet secretary, also called Mr. Soma’s remark “inappropriate” and “very regrettable.”

But the damage was done.

On Monday, Park Soo-hyun, a senior press secretary for Mr. Moon, said the South Korean leader has decided not to visit Tokyo, considering “various circumstances.”

“We wish Japan a safe and successful Olympics,” Mr. Park said. Under Mr. Moon, relations between the neighboring countries have sunk to one of the lowest points in recent decades, as mutual animosity deepened over issues rooted in Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945, such as “comfort women” sex slaves and wartime forced labor.

Mr. Moon’s canceled trip dashed hopes that the Tokyo Games might offer the rivals an opportunity for a fresh start.

“Seoul and Tokyo have put pride and domestic politics above the Biden administration’s appeals for strategic alignment,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. Even before Mr. Soma’s comment, public opinion polls showed that most South Koreans did not want Mr. Moon to visit Tokyo.

South Korean athletes in the Olympic Village in Tokyo unfurled banners at their balconies this month that referred to a 16th-century war between Korea and Japan. Right-wing Japanese commentators took umbrage.

On Saturday, the South Korean Olympic committee said it removed the banners, but not before receiving a promise from the International Olympic Committee that the Japanese “rising sun” flag will be barred at Olympic venues. Koreans resent the flag, portraying a red sun with rays extending outward, as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression.

The organizers of the Tokyo Olympics released a statement saying that they had initially hoped to keep working with Keigo Oyamada.
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The composer of music for the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies resigned on Monday after acknowledging that as a student he had bullied his disabled classmates.

Keigo Oyamada, 52, who uses the stage name Cornelius, announced on Twitter that he had handed in his resignation to the Tokyo organizing committee just four days before he was to oversee music for the opening ceremony.

Shortly after the announcement, parts of interviews he had given in the 1990s to a Japanese magazine, in which he described how he had abused classmates years earlier, surfaced on social media. The interviews quoted Mr. Oyamada saying that he had taunted children with Down syndrome, stripped classmates naked and forced them to masturbate.

With pressure building and a petition calling for his resignation, Mr. Oyamada said he had grown “keenly aware that I lacked consideration of many people when I accepted the offer to participate” in the Olympic ceremonies.

Last week, in a earlier statement issued on Twitter, Mr. Oyamada attempted to diffuse growing criticism over the interviews with an apology. He said many parts of the articles “deviate from the truth.” But, he added, “there is no doubt that my classmates were hurt by my words and conduct.”

“I am deeply sorry for how my words and actions hurt my classmates and their parents,” he wrote. “I regret and take responsibility being in a position where I hurt others rather than being a friend during my school years.” He added that he had taken time to “reflect” and “reconsider.”

The organizers of the Tokyo Olympics released a statement saying that they had accepted his resignation. Initially the organizers had said that they hoped to keep working with Mr. Oyamada, despite his “unacceptable” actions.

“In light of his sincere apology, we expressed a willingness to allow Mr. Oyamada to continue his work on preparations in the short time remaining before the Opening Ceremony,” the statement said. “However, we have come to believe that this decision was wrong, and we have decided to accept his resignation. We offer our deepest apologies for the offense and confusion caused to so many during this time.”

Mr. Oyamada is the third person associated with the organizing committee to step down after a scandal in recent months.

In March, Yoshiro Mori, the former president of the Tokyo organizing committee, resigned after he suggested women talk too much in meetings, unleashing an anti-sexist firestorm.

The same month, Hiroshi Sasaki, the original creative director of opening ceremonies, was forced out after word leaked out that he had called a popular comedian and plus-size fashion designer, Naomi Watanabe, an “Olympig.” At the time, he was describing a role for her in the opening ceremonies in which she would tumble from the sky decked out in pig ears.

The ceremony on Friday at the new Olympic stadium in Tokyo is likely to be a diminished version of the original plan, given coronavirus restrictions and the absence of spectators. Organizers are struggling to combat growing public anxiety as more athletes and Olympics personnel test positive for the coronavirus.

The Olympic stadium in Tokyo will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the track and field competitions.
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In the middle of the night nearly two years ago, construction crews resurfaced a 26.2-mile marathon course in Tokyo with a shiny, reflective coating meant to bounce the heat away. The worry was that the city’s brutal summer temperatures would sicken athletes as it had in test events.

Two months later, officials moved the marathon course 500 miles north to Sapporo, which has cooler weather. Left behind was the meandering stripe through central Tokyo, a sign of the sometimes futile and farcical lengths taken to put on the biggest show in sports.

Six months after that, the coronavirus pandemic postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games for a year. Many Japanese wondered if the bloated sports festival was worthwhile anymore, worth the risks to public health or the billions spent on venues and stagecraft and other concessions to the International Olympic Committee.

Too late. The Summer Olympics are happening, amid a spiking pandemic and in mostly empty venues. The opening ceremony on Friday will raise a question that might be aimed not just at the Tokyo Games, but at the entire Olympic movement: Just what in the world are we doing here?

To the fans of the Olympics, the positives outweigh the negatives. Most who tune in for the sporting event every couple of years love the suspense, even if they know, in the recesses of their minds, that the spectacle disguises a rusty and corrupt system, prone to vote buying in the selection of host cities (including Tokyo), appeasement of dictators and unkept promises.

A poll released last week found that 52 percent of Americans believe the Tokyo Games should happen. Only 22 percent of the people in Japan feel that way.

“Most people only care about watching the Olympics every four years and could care less about how it operates,” said Edwin Moses, the two-time gold-medalist in track who has since worked in roles across the Olympic spectrum.

But those who analyze the Olympics more broadly see the balance in reverse. They may appreciate the athletic achievements, but not enough to outweigh concerns about damage inflicted by the Olympics.

Interviews with Olympic historians, academics, athletes, officials yield at least one consensus: No one thinks the Olympics operate just fine the way they are. Key complaints fall mostly into three categories: corruption in host bidding, a lack of I.O.C. accountability and a dearth of athlete rights.

“The Olympics are unreformable, and I think on balance, they do more harm than good,” said David Goldblatt, author of “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.”

The Olympics are an easy target for criticism, never more than now. Do they still matter? Or have they lost their way and strayed from whatever ideals they purport to embody?

A recyclable cardboard bed and a mattress are pictured in a residential unit for Olympic athletes.
Pool photo by Akio Kon

Competitors arriving at the Tokyo Olympics have discovered something unusual about the beds in the athletes’ village: They’re made of cardboard.

Some have shared images on social media of the modular bed frames, which are made by the Japanese company Airweave and are recyclable. Organizers say it is the first time that the beds at the Games will be made almost entirely out of renewable materials.

But in the time of the coronavirus, when Olympic organizers worried about transmission are trying to discourage close contact as much as possible, the unusual bed frames have led some to suggest there’s another motive behind them.

Paul Chelimo, an American distance runner, speculated on Twitter that the beds were unable to support more than one person and were “aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes.” Soon the beds were being labeled on social media as “anti-sex.”

Rhys McClenaghan, a gymnast from Ireland, called the claim “fake news.” A video he posted on Twitter showed him jumping on his bed to demonstrate that it would hold up against vigorous activity. The official Olympics Twitter account reposted Mr. McClenaghan’s video, adding: “Thanks for debunking the myth.”

Kokichi Tsuburaya’s teammate Kenji Kimihara ran in the Olympic torch relay in March 2021, then held a photo of Tsuburaya.
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

SUKAGAWA, Japan — More than 70,000 fans in the National Olympic Stadium — and millions more watching on television — roared as Kokichi Tsuburaya ran on to the track, one lap from securing a silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games. The Japanese had not won a medal in track and field, and now Tsuburaya was about to make history.

Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who had captured the gold medal in Rome in 1960, finished four minutes earlier, setting a world record.

Tsuburaya, a farm-boy-turned soldier, headed to the finish line looking exhausted and pained. He was running in just his fourth marathon, and his gutsy effort would reaffirm the widely held belief in Japan that perseverance and mental toughness can overcome deficiencies in raw talent.

For many Japanese, Tsuburaya’s success in the most grueling of races spoke to the nation’s collective sacrifice as it emerged from the devastation of World War II.

The celebration was premature.

Basil Heatley, whose world record Bikila had just smashed, ran on to the track just 40 yards behind the Japanese runner. The Englishman quickly closed that gap and surged past Tsuburaya, finishing four seconds ahead of him. Tsuburaya saw his silver medal turn to bronze.

To this day, Tsuburaya’s journey to Olympic fame remains a model for schoolchildren. Yet his failure to meet his — and the country’s — high standards is also a cautionary tale.

After he crossed the finish line, the stunned silence turned to cheers as the crowd hailed Tsuburaya’s extraordinary achievement. When Bikila and Heatley left the podium, he stood alone showered in cheers. He held his medal aloft and bowed to the fans and toward the box where the crown prince and princess sat.

But inside, Tsuburaya burned with shame. To a soldier who felt as if he were running on behalf of the country, letting the silver medal slip away as the whole nation watched was humiliating.

“I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people,” he later told his teammate Kenji Kimihara. “I have to make amends.”

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