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Despite COVID Criticisms, Olympic Organizers Say Tokyo Is A Well Prepared Host


Olympic organizers say that Tokyo is the best-prepared host city ever. With the games due to begin in just over six weeks, organizers say they have measures in place to protect athletes and the population of Japan from the coronavirus. But, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, many experts and Japanese citizens remain skeptical.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted for months that the games will go ahead as scheduled. But for a minute this week, it looked like he was about to backpedal.



KUHN: "It's my responsibility to protect citizens' lives and health," he told lawmakers Monday. "If we cannot, then it's only natural not to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics." But he later clarified what he meant.


SUGA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "A major precondition for holding the games," he said, "is that citizens' lives and health would be protected." Suga added Wednesday that he intends to protect citizens by further reducing the number of Olympic officials, staff and journalists coming into Japan. Measures to protect athletes and officials, meanwhile, are outlined in a playbook. The colorful cover illustration shows two judo athletes grappling without masks on.

LISA BROSSEAU: That playbook is laughable. The graphics are nicer than any of the information that's in it.

KUHN: Lisa Brosseau is a research consultant at the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. She says the playbooks fail to include best practices for holding sporting events during a pandemic, such as, for example, housing no more than one athlete in each hotel room or using different measures to handle events with different levels of risk, from indoor contact sports to outdoor individual events.

BROSSEAU: These playbooks look like they were written back in March 2020, when we first got started and we didn't know what transmission was all about. You know, it's like no lessons learned whatsoever.

KUHN: The International Olympic Committee says 80% of athletes in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated, and they'll be tested daily. Dr. Naoto Ueyama, who heads the Japan Doctors Union, is less concerned about the roughly 15,000 athletes than the tens of thousands of staff working behind the scenes.

NAOTO UEYAMA: (Through interpreter) I'm most concerned about the volunteers. I read that they're given only two masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer to deal with the situation. It's too awful.

KUHN: Organizers say about 10,000 out of 80,000 Olympic volunteers have already quit. The government says they're considering vaccinating the rest. Ueyama says that each sporting venue is assigned a medical officer to treat ailing athletes or spectators, if there are any. But he says that some of these doctors have quit, too, because they're needed to work at Japanese hospitals flooded with COVID patients.

UEYAMA: (Through interpreter) The playbook is just armchair theorizing. They say we're doing this and that, but they haven't secured enough human resources, logistical support and money. I don't think such a plan will go well.

KUHN: Ueyama also finds it hard to believe that everyone at the games will be able to stick to social distancing rules.

UEYAMA: (Through interpreter) It's said that alcohol will be allowed and condoms distributed in the Olympic Village. I'm not sure whether or not that's true, but I'm afraid completely blocking communication among athletes will be difficult.

KUHN: The organizers plan to distribute 160,000 condoms to the athletes, but no face masks, which the athletes will be expected to bring themselves.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "BOYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.