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COVID wrecks plans of Japan's Olympic 'host towns'

April 30, 2021

Once-in-a-lifetime cultural and sporting events have been put on hold as towns and cities remain unsure about whether they will be able to welcome foreign athletes — including those from Germany.

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past the Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo
A significant majority of Japanese believes the Games should be canceled or delayed, according to recent pollsImage: Reuters/A. Perawongmetha

Communities across Japan that had signed up to act as "host towns" for foreign athletes in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer are expressing disappointment that the coronavirus pandemic has wrecked this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their residents.

And that includes the towns that are due to host athletes from the German Olympic team and their colleagues taking part in the subsequent Paralympics. 

Hundreds of cities and towns have been making meticulous plans for the arrival of foreign athletes for training and acclimatization camps ahead of the Summer Games, which are scheduled to open on July 23, and the Paralympic Games, which are due to start on August 24. 

Now, however, question marks hang over where athletes will be able to go, who they will be able to interact with and whether they will be able to visit communities that have been preparing for their arrival for years.

There are even concerns over whether the largest sporting event to be staged in Japan will even go ahead.

'Very disappointing'

"It is very disappointing for everyone in the whole town," said Hideki Matsuura, head of the exchange promotion division in the city of Higashine, Yamagata Prefecture. 

"Two years ago, athletes from the German sitting volleyball team came here as part of their pre-Olympics preparations and it was great for the town," he told DW. "They played matches with local students and took part in festivals and other events, but now we have been told that because of the risk of coronavirus, all the plans we made for their visit this time have to be canceled."

As well as the Paralympics volleyball and goalball teams, Higashine was due to host the German handball squad and the city has been offering German language courses to local residents to help them communicate with their guests. 

All those efforts now appear to have been in vain. 

"The virus changed everything," said Matsuura. "We have been given really strict regulations now and we are not allowed to have any direct exchanges with the athletes while they are here. They are only allowed to go between their hotel accommodation and training facilities and local residents will not have any chances to meet them. 

"It's sad. People here have been looking forward to this for such a long time and now we have to cancel all the events we wanted to host," he added.

Other host communities say they have not received clear guidance on how COVID-19 is going to impact German athletes' visits, although they fear the worst.

Hina Miyamae, a spokeswoman for the city of Kumamoto, in southern Japan, said it is still "not clear" what will have to change because of the coronavirus restrictions.

She added that the city, which is due to host the German swimming team, is waiting for further instructions from the central government and their German contacts. 

Since 1992, Kumamoto has a sister-city relationship with Heidelberg and welcomed German swimming teams in 2018 and 2019 for pre-Olympic tuneup events. During those visits, the athletes were able to meet and play with local children, take part in festivals and were shown how to wear a Japanese kimono. 

"We had plans for more events like that, but we need to have more discussions on what is possible," Miyamae told DW. "We just don't know right now."

Enhanced safety precautions

The city of Kitakyushu, also in southern Japan, is scheduled to welcome the German wheelchair basketball team ahead of the opening of the Paralympics and is going ahead with its plans, a city official said, albeit with much-enhanced safety precautions. 

"We have to do many extra things because of the coronavirus and we are enforcing the wearing of masks, social distancing, making sure people wash their hands and verifying people's temperature regularly," the official told DW. "We believe the German team will still be coming — and we hope so — but it's not clear at the moment." 

It is a similar situation in Numata City, in Gunma Prefecture, which is still hoping to welcome the German national fencing team. 

"We have had a sister-city tie-up with Fussen, in Bavaria, since 1995 and German athletes came to Numata in 2018 for a training camp ahead of the Fencing World Championships in China," said Kaoru Omi, an official of the city's department planning the visit. 

"During that time, they did public demonstrations of dancing and practiced with the local high school fencing club, so we have had a good relationship with Germany for many years," she said. "But at the moment, we do not know what will happen in the summer. The Games are coming up fast but we are not sure what we will be able to do with the athletes." 

Local opposition

And while host towns appear to be keen to go ahead and welcome athletes from overseas, there is a growing groundswell of opposition to the Olympics taking place this summer.

A number of recent polls indicate that a significant majority of Japanese believes the Games should be canceled outright or delayed for another year. 

That opposition may harden if infection rates continue to climb. On Thursday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported 1,027 new cases, the first time since January 28 that the daily figure topped the 1,000 threshold and up from 925 cases on Wednesday.

Just as worrying is the growing number of mutant variants of the virus, with health authorities estimating that more than 60% of cases in the capital are now of the more virulent version of the virus first detected in the UK.

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea