Fate of 2020 Olympics in America's Hands—But Team USA Unlikely to Pull the Plug

The fate of the Tokyo Olympics could largely rest in the hands of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), which remains adamant that it will be safe for athletes to compete in Japan despite the country's growing coronavirus crisis.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning for Japan, saying "travelers should avoid all travel to the country." The CDC added that in the "current situation in Japan even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading" coronavirus.

A ban is already in place preventing entry to Japan for most travelers, including people from the U.S. The CDC warning is unlikely to change the USOPC's plans, however.

"We feel confident that the current mitigation practices in place for athletes and staff by both the USOPC and the Tokyo Organising Committee, coupled with the testing before travel, on arrival in Japan, and during Games time, will allow for safe participation of Team USA athletes this summer," the USOPC said in a statement.

The Japanese government echoed this stance on Tuesday.

"We believe that there is no change in the U.S. position to support the Japanese government's determination to realise the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics," said Katsunobu Kato, Japan's chief cabinet secretary.

If the USOPC were to pull the plug, Olympic organizers would almost certainly come under enormous pressure to cancel the Games.

After earning praise for its initial response to the pandemic, Japan has been criticized for a painfully slow vaccine rollout—just over 1.9 percent of the population is fully vaccinated—and large parts of the country remain in a state of emergency.

As this graphic provided by Statista shows, Japan lags well behind other countries in the race to vaccinate its entire population.

Statista vaccine
A graphic showing the progress different countries have made in the race to fully vaccinate their entire population as of May 23. Statista

Earlier this week, doctors in Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, warned that the medical system was on the verge of collapse after a surge in COVID-19 infections left hospitals without bed spaces or ventilators.

"Simply put, this is a collapse of the medical system," Yuji Tohda, director of Kindai University Hospital in Osaka, told Reuters. "The highly infectious British variant and slipping alertness have led to this explosive growth in the number of patients."

As of Wednesday morning, Japan had reported just over 728,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 12,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In March last year, the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo organizers took the unprecedented decision of postponing the Games by 12 months. Japan is now scheduled to host the opening ceremony on July 23, exactly a year on from the original date.

Public opinion in Japan is overwhelmingly in favor of calling off the Games, amid fears that the arrival of athletes, Olympic delegations and journalists could trigger a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

Recent polls have shown that as many as 83 percent of Japanese people oppose the idea of holding the Games this summer.

Last week, IOC vice president John Coates insisted that the Olympics would go ahead "even if Tokyo is still under a state of emergency," during a virtual news conference with Tokyo organizers.

On Wednesday, however, opponents of the Games were given a boost after a major Japanese newspaper called for the Olympics to be canceled.

The Asahi Shimbun—a liberal newspaper and an official Olympic partner—called for prime minister Yoshihide Suga to listen to the widespread public opposition and "to calmly and objectively assess the situation and decide on the cancelation of the event this summer."

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Tokyo 2020 Olympics protests
A protester with a placard calling for the Olympics to be canceled, seen on May 23 in Tokyo. Polls show that most Japanese people are opposed to the Games taking place this summer. Carl Court/Getty Images