A view of the Olympic stadium in Tokyo, Japan, during an athletics test event May 9, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
TOKYO (Reuters) – Olympics organisers on Monday capped the number of spectators at 10,000 for each venue at the Tokyo 2020 Games, days after experts warned that holding the event without fans would be the least risky option during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision, widely expected following comments by both organisers and government medical advisers, highlights Japan’s push to salvage the multi-billion-dollar extravaganza amid public opposition and deep concern about a resurgence in infections.
Japan has largely avoided the kind of explosive Coronavirus outbreaks that have devastated other countries, but the vaccine roll-out has been slow and the medical system pushed to the brink in some places.
The limit for the Games, scheduled to begin on July 23, “will be set at 50% of venue capacity, up to a maximum of 10,000 people”, organisers said in a statement.
But the cheers that greet a victory or the performance of a plucky underdog could be quelled as shouting will be prohibited. Organisers also said masks would be required and spectators be requested to travel directly to venues and go straight home.
Numbers could be further reduced after July 12, depending on whether “quasi emergency” COVID-19 measures, due to expire the day before, are extended or due to any other anti-infection measures in force at the time, organisers added.
Spectators from overseas have already been banned. The national stadium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and due to host athletics and soccer this time, would have held 68,000 fans but now will be at less than 15% capacity.
However, TV deals, such as that with NBCUniversal for 17 nights of U.S. primetime coverage, will ensure the Games are beamed around the world.
Organisers are still considering whether to allow alcohol to be served in the venues, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said. Even as experts voiced concern, Hashimoto had previously said she was eyeing allowing up to 10,000 fans.
Some of the country’s top health experts on Friday said banning spectators would be the least risky option.
“It would be preferable to have no audience from the standpoint of infectious disease control,” Haruka Sakamoto, a physician and researcher at Keio University, told Reuters before the decision.
“I am concerned not just about the increase in the number of people coming to watch the Olympics itself but also about the loosening of people’s sense of urgency by hosting the Olympics with spectators.”
Some 65% of the public want the event postponed again or cancelled, a poll by broadcaster Asahi News Network found. Nearly 70% said they thought the Games would not be held safely and securely, the poll showed.
Ticket revenues are likely to be reduced by more than half from an earlier expected 90 billion yen ($817.14 million), Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told a briefing.
He said he wanted to discuss with the Tokyo and national governments on how to cover the shortfall.
Initially organisers sold some 4.48 million tickets and the government had expected a windfall for tourism. Some 840,000 tickets have since been refunded, but the caps mean another decrease, bringing the total number down to 2.72 million tickets, Muto said.
The announcement followed five-way talks among Tokyo 2020 organisers, the Japanese government and that of the capital, Tokyo, and the international Olympic and Paralympic committees.
Before the meeting, IOC President Thomas Bach said the vaccination rate for athletes and officials residing in the Olympic village was now “well above 80%”, exceeding the IOC’s initial expectations.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said he would not rule out holding the Summer Olympics without spectators if the capital was under a state of emergency for COVID-19.
“In the event a state of emergency was declared then we can’t rule out not having spectators,” he told reporters during a tour of vaccination sites in Tokyo on Monday.
Last week, Suga decided to lift a coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo and eight other prefectures that had suffered a resurgence.
The government retained less tough curbs for seven of the nine prefectures, including Tokyo, until July 11, less than two weeks before the Games are set to open.