Sports·The Buzzer

Japan is having doubts about the Olympics

CBC Sports daily newsletter looks at the host country's anxiety over holding the Tokyo Games this summer.

A large portion of the public is against hosting the Games this summer

Many people in Japan think the Tokyo Olympics should be cancelled. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

Olympic anxiety seems to be growing in Japan

The opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics is now 99 days away. In normal times, this would be pretty exciting for everyone. But the pandemic continues to weigh on the host country and the world around it.

Today, the No. 2 guy in Japan's ruling party said that cancelling this summer's Olympics and Paralympics is still an option if the coronavirus situation worsens. Japan has been relatively successful at containing the virus. But, like many countries around the world right now, it's experiencing a troubling rise in cases. "What is the point of the Olympics if it's responsible for spreading infections?" Toshihiro Nikai was quoted as saying in a television interview. "We will have to make a decision at that point."

It's almost unheard of for someone this high up in the Japanese government to suggest the Tokyo Games will not go ahead as scheduled, and Nikai pulled back to the party line by adding: "It is important for Japan to have a successful Olympics. It is a big opportunity. I want to make it a success." But you could tell his other comment was a big deal by the way it prompted immediate statements from Japanese Prime Minister Toshihide Suga (there is "no change to the government position to do everything to achieve a safe and secure Olympics") and Tokyo organizers (they, the IOC and the IPC "are fully focused on hosting the games this summer"). Opposition politicians also seized the opportunity to poke at the government's position. "Looking at the current situation, it would be difficult to hold the Olympics as proof that humanity has defeated the coronavirus," said one, turning one of Suga's own lines against him.

Meanwhile, the Japanese public remains apprehensive about hosting the Olympics. The latest poll by the Kyodo news organization found that only a quarter of respondents think the Tokyo Games should be held as scheduled. Close to a third think they should be postponed again, while 39 per cent believe they should be cancelled outright.

These opinions reflect a general dissatisfaction with Japan's vaccine rollout, which has been hampered by a lack of supply. Only about one per cent of the total population has received a dose (in Canada it's over 21 per cent), and seniors just started getting their shots Monday (healthcare workers went first).

As Canadians know all too well, rising cases + slow vaccinations = more restrictions on public activity. In Osaka, which is about 500 km from Tokyo and is the epicentre of Japan's current surge in infections, Tuesday's and Wednesday's segments of the Olympic torch relay were moved off the streets. It was hard to miss the ominousness of the 100-days-out leg being reduced to lonely torchbearers running laps in an empty park.

Next week's leg in Matsuyama is also being taken off public roads and held without spectators. A 10K race scheduled for next month on the Olympic marathon course in Sapporo was cancelled today, though a half-marathon for about 160 elite runners that will serve as an Olympic test event is still slated to go ahead. More encouragingly, the World Team Trophy figure skating event in Osaka began today as scheduled.

If other countries have their own doubts about whether the Olympics and Paralympics should be held this summer (and, surely, those must exist), they're not saying them out loud. So far, only North Korea (whose true motives are rarely clear) has said it's pulling out of the Games over coronavirus concerns. The Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee, who 13 months ago led the push to postpone the Games by announcing they would not send any athletes to Tokyo, are now firmly on the side of holding the Games this summer. No Canadian athletes are publicly calling for a postponement or cancellation this time.

The smart money is still on the Olympics opening as scheduled on July 23. The pandemic picture could look brighter by then, once more arms have been jabbed. But pulling this off safely is going to take a lot of work and maybe a bit of luck. The Games don't seem quite as inevitable as they did only a short time ago, when things were more under control.

Read more about the hurdles facing athletes and organizers in this piece by CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin, and more about the mood on the ground in Japan in this piece by Tokyo-based Jack Gallagher.

The Osaka leg of the Olympic torch relay had a less-than-festive atmosphere. (JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images)

Quickly...

The Vancouver Canucks aren't returning Friday. The outbreak-stricken team was slated to play its first game since March 24 tomorrow night vs. Edmonton. But that won't happen after Vancouver's J.T. Miller said yesterday that his team isn't ready to play yet. Read more about Miller's comments and the Canucks' situation here.

Caster Semenya is moving on. The back-to-back Olympic gold medallist and three-time world champion in the women's 800 metres appears to be letting go of the event she dominated for nearly a decade. Under a controversial rule made by track's world governing body, Semenya is barred from competing in any women's race between 400 metres and a mile unless she lowers her natural testosterone levels via surgery or medication, which the 30-year-old South African refuses to do. And she's pretty much exhausted the appeal avenues that could have reinstated her in time for the Tokyo Olympics. So Semenya has turned to the 5,000 metres, which she won today at the South African national championships in a personal-best time of 15 minutes, 52.28 seconds. That's well outside the Olympic qualifying standard of 15:10.00, but Semenya has until the end of June to meet it. Read more about Semenya's shift to the 5,000 and what's left of her appeal options here.

The WNBA draft is tonight. But the biggest star from the NCAA women's tournament won't get picked. That's because the WNBA's age limit is stricter than the NBA's. For the most part, NCAA women's basketball players must play the full four years of college ball before they can enter the WNBA draft. Men, on the other hand, are allowed to go "one and done." So you'll likely see Gonzaga freshman star Jalen Suggs picked high in this year's NBA draft, while his equivalent from the women's tournament, UConn's Paige Bueckers, has to wait a few more years. Same for her standout Canadian teammate Aaliyah Edwards. Read more about the WNBA draft's age limit and whether it might change in this piece by ESPN's Kevin Pelton.

And finally...

Rachel Homan is back on the ice — three weeks after giving birth. Talk about a working mom. The two-time Scotties champion, who had her first child (a son) in 2019, played this year's tournament eight months pregnant and made it all the way to the final, where she lost to defending champ Kerri Einarson. Less than a month later, on March 25, Homan gave birth to a daughter. Today, she returned to competition at the Champions Cup — the first of two Grand Slam of Curling events being held in the Calgary bubble. Homan's opponent for her first game was Einarson, so she couldn't exactly ease her way back in. But it seems like that suits her just fine.

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