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Tokyo Olympic head says IOC visit to Japan could be 'tough' as COVID-19 cases surge, emergency order extended

The president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee said Friday that a visit to Japan this month by IOC President Thomas Bach seemed unlikely with a state of emergency order being extended by the government to Tokyo and other areas until May 31.

State of emergency order extended until May 31

In this April 28 file photo, IOC president Thomas Bach is shown on a screen listening to a speech by Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee president Seiko Hashimoto. (Franck Robichon/Associated Press)

The president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee said Friday that a visit to Japan this month by IOC President Thomas Bach seemed unlikely with a state of emergency order being extended by the government to Tokyo and other areas until May 31.

Cancelling the trip could be embarrassing for the International Olympic Committee and local organizers who say they can hold a "safe and secure" Olympics in the middle of a pandemic as cases surge in Japan — particularly in Tokyo and Japan's second metropolis of Osaka.

The postponed Olympics are to open in only 11 weeks, on July 23, followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 24.

"Frankly speaking, I personally think it would be quite tough for him to come now," organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said at a weekly briefing, adding that "nothing had been decided."

"But the extension of the state of emergency and having him visit during that time will mean that president Bach will be visiting in a quite a difficult time," Hashimoto said. "I think that would be a very difficult thing for him."

Bach said recently he hoped to go to Hiroshima to meet the torch relay — and presumably to Tokyo — on May 17 and 18. But he has said his plans were not finalized.

'Butterflies' for Canadian diver at test event

Tokyo organizers are talking up a six-day diving test event that ended Friday. There was only one positive COVID-19 test among 438 participants — including 224 divers from 46 countries and territories. The positive test was for a team official, who was placed in quarantine, officials said.

"Feedback from the competitors has been very positive," the organizing committee and FINA, the governing body of swimming and diving, said in a statement.

In an interview with CBC Sports's Scott Russell, Canadian diver Meaghan Benfeito spoke about the safety rules in place, including regular testing for COVID-19 and mandating masks. There was also restricted use of the elevator, she said, and smaller training groups of 35 to 40 people, as compared to World Cup levels of 60 to 70. 

"It just felt like [the organizing committee] did everything that they needed to do to make sure that we were ok," she said. 

Returning to competition, Benfeito said, allows athletes to do "what they love the most."

"I feel safe, I feel fine. It was absolutely amazing to be in the Olympic pool and feel those butterflies again," she said. 

The committee and FINA statement also quoted Canadian diver Jennifer Abel saying: "The main goal for everyone is to be and feel safe, and we are very safe here. We cannot ask for better conditions with the COVID situation."

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Powerful IOC member Sebastian Coe is in Tokyo for a track and field test event on Sunday at the new $1.4 billion US national stadium.

Coe is the president of World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, and was also the head of the 2012 London Olympics. He is seen as a potential successor to Bach when the German's term ends in 2025, and is also a two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 1,500 metres.

Coe has been laudatory about a half marathon test event run earlier this week in Sapporo. He's also sympathetic with Hashimoto trying to pull off the Olympics.

"I know the pressure that you are under," Coe said to Hashimoto. "But mercifully in London, we didn't have the added complexity of worrying about protocols around a pandemic. So you have our sympathy in that extra tier of complexity."

Coe also met with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike as both try to assure that the Olympics will be safe. Some scientists have suggested otherwise, and an editorial last month in the British Medical Journal said the Olympics should be "reconsidered."

Hashimoto said a donation by vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for Tokyo would make the games safer. The agreement was announced Thursday by the IOC.

Hashimoto said this was particularly true for residents of Japan, where less than 2 per cent of the population has been vaccinated.

"I myself fully understand that people will not feel comfortable," she said, referring to young athletes jumping to the front of the line ahead of the elderly and other vulnerable populations. "This should not impact the vaccination of the priority population in Japan."

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With files from CBC Sports

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