By Jack Tarrant and Sakura Murakami
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan and the IOC stood firm on Friday on their commitment to host the Tokyo Olympics this year and denied a report of a possible cancellation, although the pledge looks unlikely to ease public concern about holding the event during a pandemic.
Though much of Japan is under a state of emergency due to a third wave of COVID-19 infections, Tokyo Olympic organizers have vowed to press ahead with the re-scheduled Games, which are due to open on July 23 after being postponed for a year because of the coronavirus.
A government spokesman said there was “no truth” to a report in Britain’s Times newspaper that the government had privately concluded the Games would have to be cancelled.
The Times, citing an unidentified senior member of Japan’s ruling coalition, said the government’s focus was now on securing the Games for Tokyo in the next available year, 2032.
“We clearly deny the report,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai told a news conference.
Later, Japan Olympic Committee head Yasuhiro Yamashita told Reuters the report was “a fabrication”, and added in an interview: “It’s wrong and it’s ridiculous even having to comment on this.”
The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, said there had been no talk of cancelling or delaying the Olympics and a protest should be lodged over the Times report.
The Games organizing committee also denied the report, saying in a statement its partners including the government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were “fully focused” on hosting the games as scheduled.
“It is very disappointing to see that the Times is developing such a tabloid-like story with an untrustworthy source,” a source from the organizing committee told Reuters.
“The national government is fully committed to delivering a safe and secure Games,” the source said.
The IOC issued a statement echoing that line, adding: “We will be implementing all possible counter-measures against COVID-19 and will continue to work closely … in our preparations for holding a safe and secure Games this summer.”
The Australian and U.S. Olympic Committees said they were preparing for the Games as planned.
“Unfortunately, I need to address unfounded rumors that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be cancelled, rumors that only create more anxiety for athletes,” Matt Carroll, the chief executive of the Australian committee, told reporters in Sydney.
“The Tokyo Games are on. The flame will be lit on July 23, 2021.”
The Australian committee is run by the IOC’s point man for the Tokyo Games, John Coates.
The U.S. and Canadian committees wrote on Twitter they had not received any information suggesting the Games would not happen as planned.
Sebastian Coe, head of World Athletics, also moved to reassure fans and locals that it would go ahead in a secure environment. “There is an absolute, cast-iron determination,” Coe told Reuters, saying that the arrival of vaccines and ability of athletes to train meant the situation was far better than when the Games were postponed last year.
Japan has been hit less severely by the pandemic than many other advanced economies but a recent surge in cases has forced it to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in the Tokyo and other cities.
Tokyo reported new daily coronavirus cases of more than 1,000 for nine straight days through Thursday and set a single-day record of more than 2,400 infections earlier this month. The death toll from the respiratory disease stands at nearly 4,900 people in Japan.
There are public fears that an influx of athletes will spread the virus. About 80% of people in Japan do not want the Games to be held this summer, recent polls show.
In an interview ahead of Friday’s report, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said he was cautiously hopeful that successful COVID-19 vaccine campaigns could help ensure the safe staging of the world’s largest sporting event.
The Olympic Games represents a major milestone for Japan and its premier, Yoshihide Suga, who has said the event would bring “hope and courage” to the world. Suga reiterated on Friday the Games would go ahead as planned.
(Reporting by Takashi Umekawa, Chris Gallagher, Jack Tarrant Mitch Phillips and Nick Mulvenney; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)