A senior Japanese ruling party official says that cancelling this year’s Olympics in Tokyo remains an option if the coronavirus crisis becomes too dire.
“If it seems impossible (to host the Olympics) any more, then we have to stop it, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said in comments to broadcaster TBS on Thursday.
Cancellation is “of course” an option, he said, adding: “If the Olympics were to spread infection, then what are the Olympics for?”
Government and organising officials have consistently said the Games would go ahead but the fact that a ruling party heavyweight has now made the remark was enough to give his comments top billing on domestic news.
The Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee responded with a statement saying all those involved in preparing for the Games remained fully focused on hosting them in the summer.
With Japan in the midst of a fourth wave of coronavirus infections, doubts over whether Tokyo would be able to host the Summer Games – already an unpopular idea with the public – have resurfaced in recent weeks.
“We do not speculate,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said on Thursday.
“We are fully concentrated and committed to the successful delivery of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 this year, and working at full speed towards the opening ceremony.”
“Olympics Cancelled” was trending on Twitter in Japan with nearly 50,000 tweets from users as of Thursday afternoon.
Nikai later issued a written statement to explain his stance.
“I want the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to succeed,” the statement said.
“At the same time, to the question of whether we would host the (Games) no matter what, that is not the case. That’s what I meant by my comments.”
Prime Minister Suga later sidestepped a reporter’s question on whether cancelling was indeed an option, saying only that the government remained committed to controlling the pandemic ahead of the Olympics.
Japan is grappling with rising COVID-19 infections, with new cases in Tokyo jumping to 729 on Thursday, the most since early February.
Preparations for the Games, which are set to begin on July 23 and will be held without international spectators, have included incorporating social distancing measures and other restrictions.
A scaled-back torch relay is already underway.
“We’ll hold (the Games) in a way that’s feasible,” Taro Kono, a popular minister in charge of Japan’s vaccination drive, said on a separate TV programme, according to Kyodo News.
“That may be without spectators,” he added.
Japan’s top medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, acknowledged the pandemic had entered a fourth wave, driven by mutant strains, with Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura urging in a magazine commentary that the Olympics be postponed.
Akira Koike, an opposition lawmaker with the Japanese Communist Party, reacted to Nikai’s comments on Twitter saying that holding the event was already “impossible” and that a swift decision on cancellation should be made.