Fighting coronavirus fears in Japan is an Olympian task

Anxiety over the coronavirus are challenging Japan's meticulous plans for the 2020 Summer Olympics, writes Chris Brown.

Amidst coronavirus scare, Japan tries to keep Olympic plans on track

A couple poses for a selfie in front of the Olympic rings in Toyko's harbour. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were supposed to be a celebration of recovery and a powerful symbol of how Japan has put a run of natural disasters and bad luck behind it.

But it's looking increasingly likely that the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic will spoil the party.

While there is virtually zero chance the games — which are set to begin July 24 — will be cancelled, tourism operators, spectators and the country's business community are all growing fretful that Japan's meticulously planned preparations will suffer.

"I saw a rumour in the news in Japan that there was a possibility no one would come for the Olympics," said Yoko Haneda, who was taking in a Japanese soccer league match at Saitama Stadium, an Olympic venue, earlier this week.   

Japanese social media sites have been awash in fearful predictions about the impact of the coronavirus and the risk of it spreading throughout the nation.

On Thursday, organizing officials again tried to quell what they called "irresponsible rumours."

"We would like to clearly reiterate that cancellation or postponement of Tokyo Games are not being considered," Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori was quoted by Reuters as saying at an International Olympic Committee coordination session on Thursday.

"We … have set up a task force and have started sharing information for the prevention of the infection."

Health challenges

Canadian Olympic watcher Laura Misener, who's the director of the University of Western Ontario's School of Kinesiology, says games organizers are in unknown territory when it comes to handling a major public health issue so close to the start of the competition.

"I don't think we've seen anything like this," Misener said. "Historically, there have been public health challenges going into games, [such as] the Zika virus in Rio in 2016, but not on the global scale of this."

Tourism operators, spectators and the country's business community are all growing fretful that Japan's preparations for the Olympics will suffer as a result of coronavirus fears. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

She expects Japanese organizers are immersed in developing protocols to ensure athletes in the Olympic Village are protected as much as possible, including tighter-than-usual controls on access and standards of sanitation.

But she said dealing with tens of thousands of spectators in large venues likely poses the greatest challenge.

"One of the things they have to manage is the crowd control, what happens going in and out of venues," she said. "We've always screened people from a security perspective. I suspect we will start seeing more around health screening as well. Are people wearing masks? Will they be required to wear masks?"

The day our CBC crew witnessed the soccer match at Saitama Stadium, there was no suggestion the virus was keeping fans away. The stands were full, and aside from some hand sanitizer stations, there was no obvious indication of enhanced health screening.

With over 200 positive coronavirus cases, Japan has the most confirmed cases outside of China. But the majority of them are on the Princess Diamond cruise ship that's been quarantined in Yokohama since Feb. 5.

Japan has the most confirmed cases of coronavirus outside of China, but the majority are on the Princess Diamond cruise ship, which has been quarantined in Yokohama since Feb. 5. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

There is no evidence the virus has spread significantly beyond the ship — although this week a Japanese health inspector who tested passengers on board later tested positive himself.

Tourism plummets

Nonetheless, like the rest of Asia, Japan's tourism sector has been hard hit as foreign visitors, particularly from China, either cancel holidays voluntarily or face a ban on tour groups. 

"There aren't as many tourists coming here anymore," Tokyo rickshaw driver Taro Sekine told CBC News outside the Senso-Ji Buddhist temple, a popular tourist site lined with souvenir shops. "There were more of them before, but now the number of Chinese tourists has decreased."

Almost 10 million Chinese visited Japan in 2019 — a record. But the coronavirus has suddenly reduced those huge numbers to a trickle.

The impact on the 11,000 athletes set to attend this summer's Olympics is unknown. Travel bans by many countries have already begun to affect Chinese athletes competing in events leading up to the Olympics.

Tourists take a rickshaw ride in Tokyo. The number of visitors from China, Japan's biggest source of tourists, is down dramatically. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

ESPN reports that competitions in China for soccer, basketball and badminton have all been moved elsewhere. Other upcoming events in golf, rugby and many other sports are also poised to be affected.

'Clean' games

At Saitama Stadium, CBC spoke to many people who expressed anxiety about the virus and its implications for the Olympics. But they also suggested that athletes and international visitors who attend the games should feel safe.

"Japanese people are very clean and careful about disinfecting with alcohol spray. I think the same thing will happen during the Olympics, so it's totally safe for people to come," said food stall vendor Yoshio Goto.

His customer, Daito Takeshi, agreed. "It's very safe and very clean in Japan," he said.

The coronavirus is just the latest public relations challenge organizers have had to overcome in the lead-up to the Tokyo games. Radiation fears are another.

Next month, the Olympic torch will begin its official sprint to the opening ceremonies with a kickoff in Japan's Fukushima region, which is still recovering from the 2011 disaster at the nearby nuclear power plant.

The Tokyo2020 Olympic BMX Course is seen in the Ariake Urban Sports Park. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

A 9.0 earthquake — one of the strongest in recorded history — followed by a devastating tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Daiichi facility, causing three reactors to melt down and spew lethal radiation over a wide area.

Japan's government often refers to the upcoming games as the "Recovery Olympics" to emphasize just how far the country has come since then.

It plans to launch the Olympic torch run next month in a previously contaminated area less than 40 km from the nuclear plant. Events in baseball and soccer are also set for venues just outside the former exclusion zone. 

Olympic watchdog

Some environmental groups have questioned whether the sites are really as clean as the Japanese government claims they are. 

Misako Ichimura, a self-appointed Olympic watchdog and social justice advocate, told CBC News she believes the recovery from the 2011 disaster is far from complete, and that the coronavirus represents a significant threat on top of it.

"The administration is always prioritizing the Olympics and abandoning other important issues," she said in Tokyo. "People are panicking about [the coronavirus] in relation to the Olympics. The things we should be eliminating now are mega-events like the Olympics that are made only to make money and [are] prioritized by the IOC."

But the momentum toward July's opening ceremony appears unstoppable.   

Food vendor Yoshio Goto said Japan is a very clean country and visitors shouldn't worry about the coronavirus. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

CBC visited several brand new sporting venues, as well as the Athletes Village in Tokyo's refurbished Harumi neighbourhood on the waterfront.   

The Olympic rings have also been moved into a position on a barge near the city's Rainbow Bridge.

Misener, the Canadian Olympics watcher, said whatever measures local organizers implement, scaling back on the spectator experience will be a last resort.

"The whole idea is to get as many people there and celebrating as much as possible," she said. "It's not a Games without spectators."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.