Sports world expecting postponed Tokyo Olympics to happen amid uneasy calm

TOKYO, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) — It was a Sunday afternoon on January 18 and only the third day after Osaka entered a state of emergency because of the worsening COVID-19 situation. People thought that all sporting activities had come to a standstill in Japan’s second-biggest city.

To most people’s surprise, the women’s singles final of the Japanese national table tennis championships was going on at Maruzen Intec Arena, close to Osaka city center. After a thrilling showdown, Kasumi Ishikawa upset fellow Tokyo Olympian and world No. 3 Mima Ito to win the title 4-3.

“I’ll do what I can to prepare well for the Tokyo Olympics and give it my best once again,” said the 27-year-old Ishikawa, who has two medals for Japan in the women’s team event; a silver from the 2012 London Games and a bronze at 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Ishikawa, who speaks fluent Chinese, told Xinhua last year before COVID-19 swept the world, that her dream in her final Olympic Games is to win a singles medal. Her fifth national title proved that she is very well prepared for that target despite a difficult year.

Osaka is not the only city that has witnessed a surge of COVID-19 cases. Ishikawa is also not alone in fighting the virus for her Olympic dream.

Spain’s Carolina Marin, the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s badminton singles event, traveled thousands of miles to Bangkok before claiming the Thailand Open title with a dominant victory over world No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei that same day.

After a serious ACL injury in 2019 threatened to end her Olympic dreams, this victory shows that she will be a top medal threat once again at the postponed Tokyo Olympics, which will be held from July 23 to August 8.

It is by no means easy to have any of these events take place. Japan’s world No. 1 Kento Momota tested positive for COVID-19 at Narita Airport before flying to Bangkok, prompting the withdrawal of all Japan’s players from the Thailand Open. But neither the hosts nor the athletes will succumb to the crisis.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday made another promise, his fourth in 18 days, that his government will bring the pandemic under control “as soon as possible” and continue preparations to host the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

In a policy speech marking the start of this year’s ordinary parliamentary session, Suga said: “We will press ahead with preparations, with determination to implement watertight anti-infection measures and hold an event that can bring hope and courage to the world.”

Suga issued a COVID-19 state of emergency for Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures on January 7 in a bid to stem the virus’ resurgence before expanding it to seven more prefectures, including Osaka and Kyoto. After that, skepticism over the feasibility of the Olympics has increased both in Japan and overseas.

Taro Kono, Japan’s administrative and regulatory reform minister, said that the Olympics “could go either way”, and called on the IOC for “Plan B, Plan C”. Takeshi Niinami, an economic advisor to Suga, said he was not sure whether the Tokyo Olympics could be held or not, suggesting that a decision could be made by end of March.

Canada’s IOC member Dick Pound became the first dignitary to say that the Games might not take place, and former IOC vice-president Kevan Gosper has suggested the IOC could seek to involve the United Nations in determining whether the Games can be held.

Since assuming office last September, Suga has consistently vowed to host the Games as scheduled, despite the COVID-19 situation in Japan having worsened in recent months. The IOC has always stood behind him, along with major sporting powers like China and the U.K..

When asked last week about whether there will be a further postponement or cancelation, an IOC spokesperson responded: “The IOC has full confidence in the Japanese authorities and the measures they are taking. Together with our Japanese partners, we continue to be fully concentrated and committed to the safe and successful delivery of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 this summer.”

The delayed Tokyo Olympics will be followed by the Beijing Winter Olympics just six months later, and China has firmly supported its east Asian neighbor. Yu Zaiqing, China’s longest-serving IOC member, said that the COVID-19 challenges have not compromised Japan and the IOC’s determination to host Tokyo 2020 as scheduled.

Team GB Chef de Mission Mark England was also confident the Tokyo Olympics would go ahead, saying to Reuters that “we are full steam ahead, planning to embark on Japan from the middle of July and that is our focus of attention.”

Suga said at his policy speech on Monday that the government will continue preparation for a vaccine rollout by the end of February, promising “we’ll do everything we can to deliver safe and effective vaccines to you all.”

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