Protesters demanding the Tokyo Olympics are scrapped have gathered in the Japanese capital just hours before the Games are due to kick off.
Angry locals waving banners that read ‘NOlympics’ and ‘Cancel the Tokyo Olympics’ were pictured in Tokyo at a torch relay event – which this year sees ‘runners’ walk just a few steps before passing the flame over to avoid the risk of Covid infections.
After being passed between the final group of volunteers today, the flame will be transported – not by runner – to the main Olympic stadium where it will light a cauldron and mark the start of the Games.
The ceremony will begin at 8m local time (12pm GMT) and is scheduled to last around three hours including the athletes’ procession.
But, even at the 11th hour, demonstrators furious that the event is going ahead during a pandemic and against the backdrop of rising cases in Japan gathered to call for the event to be scrapped.
There are now 110 cases of Covid linked directly to the Games after another 25 were reported Thursday, bringing the total number of infected athletes to 13 including another member of the Czech team – road cyclist Michal Schlegel.
Protesters opposed to the Tokyo Olympics gather outside a torch relay venue in the Japanese capital to express their anger just hours before the Games officially begin
Polls show most Japanese do not support the Games being held during Covid, particularly as cases rise across the country with a state of emergency declared in Tokyo itself
A man holds a banner declaring ‘shame’ on ‘greedy’ Olympic organisers and athletes for pursuing ‘money and honour’ while ordinary Japanese only feel ‘despair’
Olympic organisers have vowed to push ahead with the event despite widespread opposition that has even seen some sponsors distance themselves from the Games
Three members of the media were also included in the latest total – which only counts those who tested positive in Japan and not those who were diagnosed in their home countries before making the journey.
Schlegel tested positive at the team’s training base in Izu and will miss Saturday’s road race.
The Czech Olympic Committee said in a statement Friday that Schlegel is in isolation, and that Michael Kukrle and Zdenek Stybar will be its only two riders lining up at Musashinonomori Park for one of the first medal events of the Summer Games.
Czech beach volleyball players Marketa Slukova and Ondrej Perusic and table tennis player Pavel Sirucek also tested positive earlier this week.
That has prompted the Czech Olympic team to investigate whether the outbreak is linked to its chartered flight to Tokyo.
The Games were supposed to take place last year but organisers took a high-stakes gamble to postpone them due to the Covid pandemic, in the hopes that the virus would be under control by now.
Officials now have the unenviable task of staging the Games while the most-infectious form of Covid to date is in circulation, causing cases to rise rapidly in Japanamid fears the Olympics will become a super-spreader event.
Even this slimmed-down version of the competition – with strict limits on who can stay in Athletes’ Village and crowds banned from stadiums – will see some 50,000 people gather in the largest international event since the pandemic began.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside a torch relay arena, where volunteers are carrying the flame just a few steps before passing it on due to Covid restrictions
Police block demonstrators from accessing an arena where the final stages of the Olympic torch relay are taking place before the opening ceremony
Demonstrators holding banners reading ‘No Olympics’ in English gather outside the Tokyo government complex, where the last stage of the torch relay is being held
Police block angry protesters from accessing the torch relay event, amid widespread opposition to the Games in Japan
A protester holds up a sign opposing the torch relay outside a government building where the final stages of the symbolic event are taking place
Japanese people angry that the Olympics is being allowed to go ahead during Covid protest against the event in Tokyo today
And while Covid cases driven by the Delta variant are rising rapidly in other countries – including the likes of the UK – Japan has fully vaccinated just 20 per cent of its population, one of the lowest rates among developed countries.
But comparison, the UK has fully vaccinated more than half of its population.
That has made the Games unpopular with the Japanese public, with polls consistently showing a majority of people do not support the event going ahead and do not expect to enjoy watching.
Meanwhile a series of scandals has plagued organisers, with no fewer than five Olympic officials and artists linked to the Games being forced to quit – mostly over claims of inappropriate past behaviour.
The most-recent was Opening Ceremony director Kantaro Kobayashi who was forced to step down on Thursday after an old comedy skit in which he jokes about the Holocaust came to light.
It was the third resignation just this week, after Opening Ceremony composer Keigo Oyamada was sacked over historic allegations of bullying, and children’s author Nobumi quit a cultural event related to the Games also over bullying claims.
Despite Kobayashi’s resignation, organisers insisted the Opening Ceremony – already re-planned at short notice due to Covid – would go ahead as planned.
Even on the field the Games is running into controversy amid a growing backlash against anti-protest gestures by the International Olympic Organising Committee.
The IOC has already watered down a 50-year-old rule on political gestures at the Games to allow footballers to take a knee against racial injustice before matches.
Japanese jet display team Blue Impulse take part in an aerial display over Tokyo’s main Olympic stadium ahead of the Opening ceremony
Blue Impulse display jets release coloured smoke over Tokyo just hours before the main Opening Ceremony is due to take place
But on Friday a group of 150 athletes, academics, and social justice campaigners submitted a letter saying a ban on political gestures on podiums should be revoked.
The letter said it was adding ‘a collective voice’ to calls for amendments to Rule 50.
‘We believe the global sport community is at a turning point in matters of racial and social justice, and we call on you as leaders in the Olympic and Paralympic movements to make a stronger commitment to human rights, racial/social justice, and social inclusion,’ the letter read.
Among the signatories were Black U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were expelled from the 1968 Olympics after they bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists on the podium to protest racial inequality.
The Muhammad Ali Center also signed the letter, with the late boxing world and Olympic champion’s cauldron lighting at the Atlanta 1996 Games having become an iconic moment of Olympic history.
The letter called for no sanctions to be imposed on athletes who protested on the podium in Japan and demanded a review of Rule 50 after next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.
British track and field medal hope Dina Asher-Smith also joined the chorus of opposition as she prepared for the Games.
‘Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right,’ she told reporters. ‘If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?’
‘When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – and as a Black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that.’
Russian archer COLLAPSES in scorching Tokyo heat during Olympics qualification
A Russian archer fainted in the Tokyo heat during a qualifying Olympic round on Friday as a 33C (91F) heatwave pushed coaches and staff to huddle under trees for shade.
Svetlana Gomboeva collapsed as she checked her final scores and required assistance from staff and team-mates who put bags of ice on her head to cool her down.
‘We hope that she will be okay. It turns out that she couldn’t stand a whole day out in the heat,’ coach Stanislav Popov told reporters.
A Russian archer fainted in the Tokyo heat during a qualifying Olympic round on Friday
‘This is the first time I remember this happening. In Vladivostok, where we were training before this, the weather was similar. But humidity played a role here.’
Team-mate Ksenia Perova said later that Gomboeva was recovering well and would be able to resume competition.
‘Everything is fine with Sveta now,’ she said.
With temperatures expected to peak around 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit) in the archery dome on the first day of competition, athletes had challenges with hydration and staying cool as well as those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gomboeva quickly regained consciousness after collapsing but needed to be taken off on a stretcher out of the arena by medical officers.
South Korea’s Kang Chaeyoung, who came third in the individual ranking rounds, said she had not experienced anything like Tokyo’s heatwave conditions in other recent events.
Australia’s Alice Ingley had some simple advice for her fellow competitors on how to beat the heat.
‘Cooling vest, slushies, fans, umbrellas, just all that, just try to keep out of the heat as much as possible,’ Ingley told Reuters after her competition.
‘And drink water as much as possible.’
Svetlana Gomboeva (centre) collapsed as she checked her final scores and was seen to by staff