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Japan's big Olympics gamble as covid-19 cases rise

Japan denies considering vaccine priority for Olympic athletes even as many Japanese want the Games to be postponed due to a surge in infections

A torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympics.
A torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympics. (Getty Images)

Japan has announced not currently looking to prioritise covid-19 vaccines for Olympic athletes, dismissing a media report that sparked a social media outcry since the country's inoculations are trailing other major economies.

Only a million people have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine since February, out of Japan's population of 126 million, and the more vulnerable elderly do not even start getting their shots until next week.

New infections have spiked ahead of the Olympics, which are set to start in July. Tokyo saw 545 new cases on Thursday and its governor said she would ask the central government to impose emergency measures in the capital region.

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A Kyodo news agency report, citing government officials, said Japan has begun looking into the possibility of ensuring its Olympic and Paralympic athletes are all vaccinated by the end of June.

"Give it to my mother first," one Twitter user wrote, adding: "Athletes are all young and healthy."

While the government has said it will push ahead with the Olympics as planned from July 23, a vast majority of Japanese want the Games to be cancelled or postponed again.

The outrage on social media continued despite Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato denying the report and saying that the government was not looking to give priority to athletes.

"This is really weird. Given that we have no idea if even all the elderly will have received their vaccines by mid-June, you're going to have all the athletes have theirs?" a user with the handle "Aoiumi2" posted on Twitter.

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Others noted that Japan's original plan gives priority to medical workers, the elderly and those with chronic conditions, with ordinary citizens unlikely to get theirs before the summer.

A number of test events for some sports have recently been cancelled or postponed due to concerns about the pandemic, and on Tuesday leading business executive Hiroshi Mikitani wrote on Twitter that holding the Games was "risky".

"Honestly, I feel that the Olympics this summer are just far too risky. I am against them," wrote Mikitani, the CEO of Japanese e-commerce group Rakuten Inc.

Even so, much of corporate Japan is still mobilized behind the Olympics. Atsushi Katsuki, the CEO of Asahi Group, said he stood by holding the Games and that the leading beer maker had benefited from being a sponsor.

"I want the Olympics and Paralympic Games to be held," Katsuki said in an interview with Reuters.

"It's unfortunate that the Olympics have been scaled down, but we're not too concerned about that," he added.

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