Japanese towns drop plans to host Olympic athletes - Nikkei

By Eimi Yamamitsu and Ju-min Park

TOKYO (Reuters) -Dozens of Japanese towns have abandoned plans to host Olympics athletes due to concerns they will overburden already stretched medical resources amid a fourth wave of coronavirus infections, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Thursday.

Forty out of more than 500 towns registered to welcome international competitors had decided not to accept athletes for training camps and cultural exchanges before the global sporting showpiece, the newspaper reported citing a government source.

The reluctance of some towns to host visiting athletes, normally a source of pride for communities outside the host city, is the latest sign of deep unease in Japan over the scheduling of the Games in the middle of a pandemic.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed last year and are currently scheduled to take place from July 23 to Aug. 8 despite a surge in infections and a state of emergency in the host city.

Other regions scheduled to host athletes have also been hard hit, including the eastern prefecture of Chiba where the U.S. track and field team had been due to have a training camp. The prefecture reported on Wednesday that the team had cancelled those plans.

Chiba Governor Toshihito Kumagai said the prefecture would not guarantee hospital beds for the athletes as they should not be given preferential treatment.

"Chiba prefecture is not thinking about securing scarce hospital beds ... for athletes and people involved in the Olympic Games in a way that would prohibit our residents from using them,” Kumagai told reporters.

Shiro Hasegawa, an official at Okuizumo Town, said it was no longer possible to host India's hockey team for pre-Games training as planned before the pandemic struck.

"There's limited time and cost issues, and it is impossible to have exchange activities between residents and athletes," he told Reuters.

Overseas athletes also will not participate in a test event for the Olympics BMX freestyle cycling, the Yomiuri newspaper said on Thursday.

HOSPITALS STRETCHED

Some municipalities have expressed concern about how Japan's medical system would cope if the Games turned into a superspreader event, concerns shared by the country's top medical adviser.

"It is extremely important to evaluate how much medical care will be burdened during the (Olympic) period," medical adviser Shigeru Omi told lawmakers on Thursday, repeating concerns he has raised since April.

The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday said it supported Japanese measures to counter COVID-19 and was confident the Tokyo Olympics would be a "historic" event.

Public opposition to the Games is growing as Japan struggles to contain a fourth wave of infections which is pushing medical resources to the brink.

The government has been criticised for not locking down the economy hard enough and bungling the vaccine rollout, with only 2.8% of the population inoculated, the lowest rate among wealthy countries.

To forestall a virus outbreak during the event, Japan is preparing to offer vaccinations to about 2,500 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and support staff, using donated shots.

Japan reported more than 7,000 new infections on Wednesday, with 969 cases in Tokyo.

About 700 new cases were confirmed on Thursday in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido where the Olympic marathon will take place, media reported, marking a record high.

(Reporting by Eimi Yamamitsu and Ju-min Park; Editing by Stephen Coates)