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Delayed by a year, Tokyo Olympics kick-off amid COVID-19 fears, protests

A year after they were postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Olympics kicked off in Tokyo, Japan-- but not without controversies. The opening ceremony was held without spectators and most competitions are being held without an in-person audience. Meanwhile, as COVID-19 cases rise, public outcry against the Games has grown. New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Motoko Rich joins.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Tokyo Olympics are like no other games, postponed for a year and now facing the challenge of spectator-less stadiums, protests, and threatening weather conditions.

    For more, I spoke with the New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Motoko Rich.

    This has been an opening ceremony unlike any other. There weren't any people in the stands, that was the first thing that most Americans noticed when they turned on their TVs last night. And there aren't going to be any in most of the events unless they're outdoors.

  • Motoko Rich:

    Correct. The athletes procession, which is kind of the centerpiece of every Olympic opening ceremonies, you've got all these athletes coming into the stadium, and they're basically doing it for television because they're waving at empty stands. And so that was kind of weird to see that. A little bit sad as well, just to know that these athletes had worked so hard to get there and that they didn't have the people that they would normally have kind of going wild for them as they came in. The athletes are not even allowed in the Olympic Village until five days before their competitions start. So I think there are a lot of athletes that haven't even arrived in the country and so they weren't marching in the parade. So that was a little odd.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How concerned are they? Not necessarily maybe to get very sick, but even if they test positive, that could mean that's it, they're not competing.

  • Motoko Rich:

    What we've been told is that between 80 and 85 percent of the athletes that have been coming to Japan are all vaccinated. So if they're testing positive, it's most likely that they're either asymptomatic or maybe having very mild symptoms. We've only had less than two dozen athletes who've tested positive. But of course, if you do, you could be sidelined. So we've seen some announcements, heartbreaking announcements from a few athletes. We have seen some situations say, for example, like the South African football team or soccer, as we say in America, that two players on the team tested positive and then that meant the whole team was designated as a close contact. But they were isolated. They were served meals in their rooms and they were allowed to play. So there was a game that they played against Japan.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the fact that all these events that Japan had spent billions of dollars on are sitting empty through these games?

  • Motoko Rich:

    That's right. I mean, they spent about $1.4 billion to build this beautiful stadium and lots of other venues. And I think for the athletes, I mean, we talked to athletes, because the last time Tokyo hosted the games was in 1964 and it was sort of Tokyo's and Japan's re-entrance onto the world stage showing the world that they had recovered from the war. And it was like this huge event for the country. Now that the games have finally started, despite concerns and anxiety and even anger about the Olympics being held in the middle of a pandemic, there's still a lot of people like once they start and they know the events are happening, they want to see them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    During the opening ceremonies what were the protests about and are they likely to continue?

  • Motoko Rich:

    Well, during the opening ceremonies, because there were no spectators and certain people were sitting in the media Tribune, if they were sitting up high enough during moments of silence, they could hear the protesters outside or effectively saying, stop the Olympics, pull the games. I anticipate that they will go on because there is a segment of the population that's really angry about this. They feel that the priorities of the government and the organizing committee are misplaced, that they shouldn't have gone ahead with the games in the middle of a pandemic. So I think it's sort of a little bit split that there are people who are sort of excited and have decided, well, the games are going on. We might as well get into the games in the medal count. And then there's another segment that is still very angry and thinks this is very inappropriate. And there are protesters.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This has been a rocky start to the Olympics. Besides just COVID, you've also got a typhoon bearing down as if things couldn't get worse.

  • Motoko Rich:

    Right. And then on top of that, I mean, even before the pandemic, one of the biggest worries for the Tokyo Olympics was the heat. I mean, July and August are the hottest months of the year. They, in fact, moved the marathon to Sapporo, which is on the northern island even before the pandemic. They made that decision because they just realized we can't have people running in those kinds of conditions. And then now we've got, as you say, this typhoon warning. And so some of the rowing races were already moved forward. Races that were scheduled for Monday were moved to Sunday just to get them out of the way in case the typhoon actually does hit Tokyo.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Motoko Rich of The New York Times joining us from Tokyo. Thanks so much.

  • Motoko Rich:

    Thanks for having me.

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