Tokyo (AFP) – Japan’s northern Fukushima and Hokkaido regions have banned spectators from Olympic competitions in their areas, expanding unprecedented steps to hold the Games mostly behind closed doors due to the pandemic.
The announcements by their regional governors reversed a decision Thursday evening by Olympic organisers to save competitions outside the greater Tokyo area for live viewing.
Fukushima’s decision also carries symbolic significance as Tokyo 2020 officials had long touted the Olympics as the “reconstruction Games” to showcase the region’s recovery from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 that triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant.
Governor Masao Uchibori said Saturday that rising coronavirus infections and pressure on hospital beds in Fukushima and the greater Tokyo area prompted him to ban fans at baseball and softball matches.
“I think we need to take full measures to achieve a safe and secure Games,” he said. “Conditions to hold a ‘reconstruction Games’ have changed as we continue to fight against the new infectious disease.”
The announcement followed a similar decision by Hokkaido governor Naomichi Suzuki who said late Friday that five Olympic football matches scheduled in the regional capital of Sapporo would take place without fans.
Suzuki said he made the call after concluding that anti-pandemic measures proposed by the organisers were insufficient and would not limit flows of people from Tokyo, which is seeing a surge in infections.
Sapporo will also host marathon and race walk events. Olympic and local officials have already asked the public not to come out to watch the races live.
Hokkaido itself has also long struggled to control coronavirus infections. But it is planning to end its three-week quasi-state of emergency after this weekend.
– ‘Nicer to have atmosphere’ –
Tokyo 2020 and government officials on Thursday decided that they would ban fans from events in the capital and surrounding areas, which will be under a virus state of emergency throughout the Games.
But they stressed that some fans would be allowed at competitions held elsewhere.
On Saturday the organising committee confirmed that officials in the Miyagi, Ibaraki and Shizuoka regions were still committed to hosting competitions with fans in venues.
Organisers have pushed to allow up to 50 percent capacity for audiences or fewer than 10,000 people at venues.
Nevertheless with Tokyo off-limits, the pandemic-postponed Games will be the first to take place largely behind closed doors.
Olympic footballers on Saturday expressed disappointment at the decision.
Having spectators is important to players “because it’s always nicer to have an atmosphere in the stands. It just makes the game better”, said midfielder Danielle van de Donk, a member of the Dutch women’s team.
“But we’re just happy that we could still play at the Olympics.”
Despite virus rules the team were able to open their training for public viewing Saturday outside Tokyo, drawing dozens of spectators in the small coastal town of Kamogawa.
Locals said they had previously felt uneasy about hosting athletes from overseas in their town during the pandemic, but most spectators on Saturday were positive.
“I can now say I am truly filled with joy that these Olympic athletes have chosen to come to Kamogawa,” said Maiko Ishikura, a local farmer.