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Japanese public worried Olympics may be a superspreader event despite spectator ban

The decision to bar spectators from Olympic events in Tokyo, Japan comes two weeks before the games, citing the risk of COVID-19. Only 15% of the country's population is fully vaccinated. How will it affect the games? Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, and Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The decision today to bar all spectators from attending Olympic events in Tokyo comes just two weeks before the Games are set to begin.

    Organizers once hoped the Games would be a global showcase for Japan. But there's been widespread opposition within the country to hosting them during the pandemic. Only 15 percent of Japan's population is fully vaccinated. And there's concern that cases are rising again this summer. More than $20 billion have already been committed to pulling off these Olympics.

    For a look at all of this, I'm joined by Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today. She will be going to Tokyo to cover her 19th Olympics. And Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia Pacific studies at the council on foreign relations. And she has written extensively about Japan.

    It is so good to have both of you with us. Thank you for joining us.

    Christine, I'm going to start with you.

    Why the organizers' decision today to say, not only foreign tourists can come to sit and watch these Olympics, but no one, not even Japanese residents?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Judy, they have declared a state of emergency that will run through the entire Olympic Games.

    This is exactly what the International Olympic Committee was not planning when it postponed the Games last March, during the height of the — as the pandemic was starting. But here we are. And so you have got a state of emergency. You have got COVID cases rising in Tokyo and the surrounding area. And you have got basically, what, 15 to 20 percent of Japanese residents completely, fully vaccinated.

    And it was a very slow process to vaccinate the population in Japan. They were very slow off the mark. So now you have got this situation where you just can't trust it. You just can't put people in those venues. And even as the athletes of the world show up, there will be some who are not vaccinated. We don't know how many, but certainly there will be unvaccinated athletes coming into Japan.

    And the risk is too great. And it truly is a shame, because this is the greatest regularly scheduled peacetime gathering of the world, the Olympic Games are, the youth of the world coming together for good, for sport. And, of course, this is a gathering that will have no gathering, because the athletes can't even mix.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Christine Brennan:

    And you can't have those scenes in the square with television sets and everyone together in a glorious celebration.

    It is very, very unfortunate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sheila, we are reading that the Japanese public didn't want the Games to go forward.

    Why then did the Japanese government say, yes, the Games will go forward, despite all these restrictions? And what kind of pressure were they under from the International Olympic Committee?

  • Sheila Smith:

    Well, thank you, Judy.

    I think it's really been hard for the Prime Minister Suga and his Cabinet to try to balance both the COVID pandemic and the management of that pandemic with the real investment both in financial terms, but also in expectations, for these Olympics.

    The Japanese people largely love the Olympic Games and were delighted when Tokyo was selected to host them. But, as the pandemic became more severe, and as the consequences of that pandemic for this year's Games became more acute, not only in Japan, but around the world, I think the public has turned sour on the idea that they should be hosting them.

    As you pointed out in your opening piece, about 85 percent of the Japanese public feel that they should be postponed once again or canceled altogether.

    I think what is at stake is, obviously, a lot of government investment. These Olympic Games for cities, for countries are not inexpensive endeavors. But there is also the idea that they could showcase Japan to the world…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Sheila Smith:

    … to show a renewed Japan, a technologically sophisticated Japan, and Japanese culture to the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Christine, bringing it back to the International Olympic Committee, they have been pushing very hard for these Games to go forward. Why?

  • Christine Brennan:

    So much money. It's all about the money.

    It's all about billions of dollars, sponsorship. It's about the Olympic Committees that need that money as well. Basically, a Summer Olympics or a Winter Olympics, which will happen in Beijing in six months, it funds everything.

    And there is also, in addition to that — obviously, that is a very big reason, just the financial reason. And that is why it is going to look like a TV show. And they almost don't — they care about not having fans, but not really. They want the show to go on, the television show to go on. It could be on a sound stage, really.

    But, also, I think you have got the hubris of the International Olympic Committee. And that is not breaking news. We are talking about people who in some cases are royalty in Europe or they think they're royalty. They stay at the finest hotels and they have the biggest per diems and the great meals. And they are the ones, the lords of the rings that run the Olympics.

    And they're not going to have anything but their Olympic Games. And I'm wondering, for the future, if we look back at this time maybe 20, 30 years from now, if the Olympics struggle, we may look at this as this — again, this confidence, bordering on hubris, the sense that we will do this no matter what and come what may.

    And we will see, of course, what comes what may over the next month or so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sheila, you were starting to talk about what is at stake for the Japanese, for the organizers, for the country.

    It's their reputation. And they have to be worried about safety.

  • Sheila Smith:

    Absolutely, Judy.

    I think the government is on tenterhooks here. It is important to point out that the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Japan are still far less than they are here in the United States or in India, for example. But, nonetheless, the Japanese people are very worried that this is going to be some kind of super-spreader event that the government will not be able to manage.

    And, of course, the stakes for Prime Minister Suga and his political party are also very high. There is a Lower House election scheduled for October. And getting to the other side of these Games safely is going to be very, very important for his political future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Christine, I want to come back to something you said in your first answer about how different this is going to be for the athletes themselves.

    How — what is going to be different? As we mentioned, you have covered, what is it, 18 of these Olympic Games before. But what will be different for them?

  • Christine Brennan:

    There is no ability to go out on the town with family or friends after their events or during their events.

    There is no mingling with the other athletes. The joy of a Canadian being able to sit next to an Indian, who is sitting next to an Australian, who is sitting next to German athletes, all different sports, having lunch or dinner, that can't happen. They cannot sit in the dining hall and enjoy those — that social time.

    And when you talk to athletes, as you and I have, Judy, over the years, Olympians from the past, they talk about that, the deep friendships that they made, again, in the village. It can't happen, because you cannot have the risk, not — COVID, of course, is part of it, but also contact tracing.

    Someone goes and does that, and then there is, of course, the tracing, the apps. We will all have them. They will be watching us, our every move. And then you go back to your dorm, your Olympic village hallway, and you contact trace your roommates right out of their event.

    It sounds like that could be dramatic and maybe won't happen. I certainly hope it doesn't happen, Judy, but it could.

    And that's why it's going to be a very austere and spartan Olympic Games, where these athletes compete and then they go home, none of the celebration, the joie de vivre that we are so used to at an Olympic Games.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Christine, the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony, they're still going to have that?

  • Christine Brennan:

    They are. There will be no fans. As we understand it, the athletes may come in. Again, they have got to keep them apart from other countries, which is unusual.

    Come in, walk around the track, have a wave to empty seats, and then walk right back out and get them back safely to their dorm rooms, again, a TV show, more than anything else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Christine Brennan, Sheila Smith.

    The Games begin in just a little more than two weeks.

    Thank you both very much.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Sheila Smith:

    Thank you, Judy.

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