The president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organising committee rebuffed speculation on Wednesday that the Games might be cancelled due to deepening concern about the coronavirus outbreak, declaring that was not an option.
“I am totally not considering this,” Yoshiro Mori told reporters at a briefing when asked about a possible cancellation. Asked when the organisers could decide on changes to the Olympics, he said: “I’m not God so I don’t know.”
But Mori, who repeated several times that the only plan right now was to hold the Games as scheduled, also emphasised that the organisers were listening to various opinions and would be flexible.
“The situation changes every day. It changes depending on the place. That’s why we need to respond in a flexible manner,” Mori said.
The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Japan has topped 1,000, according to a Reuters calculation, of which 706 are from the Diamond Princess liner. A total of 12 have died, of which six were from the Diamond Princess.
This has fuelled worries the Games could be postponed or even cancelled. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked schools to close this month, companies are encouraging employees to work from home and sporting events are being cancelled or played in empty arenas.
Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto fuelled concerns about a delay, saying on Tuesday that Tokyo’s contract with the IOC “could be interpreted as allowing a postponement” until the end of the year, although she reiterated the government remained committed to the Games starting on July 24.
Mori said Hashimoto had told him that her remarks had been misinterpreted and taken out of context.
Mori spoke after a videolink with the board members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), during which he briefed them on measures Tokyo 2020 officials were taking to control the spread of coronavirus during the events in the run up to the Games. The IOC board members are holding a two-day meeting in Lausanne.
Mori said he was “happy” and “encouraged” to hear that IOC President Thomas Bach was confident that the Olympics would begin as scheduled on July 24.
The organising committee’s CEO, Toshiro Muto, said it will monitor the temperature and the overall health of the runners and staff taking part in the Olympic torch relay which will arrive in Japan on March 20.
Muto said that the details of the ceremonies celebrating its arrival from Greece in the earthquake-struck Miyagi prefecture, as well as the official kick-off in Fukushima on March 26, will be announced in the coming days.
Tokyo 2020 will ask runners feeling unwell to not participate and it may restrict the number of people attending relay events, according to a statement released at the briefing.
The torch will be lit in Olympia, although crowds will be smaller and receptions have been scrapped at the lighting ceremony on March 12 before a seven-day relay in Greece.
Japan's Olympics minister said the country is committed to hosting the summer games as planned from July even as the coronavirus outbreak spread to new parts of the country.
"Cancellation or delay of the Games would be unacceptable for the athletes," Seiko Hashimoto said in parliament on Thursday. "An environment where athletes can feel at ease and focus should be firmly prepared."
Japan's western prefecture of Shiga reported its first coronavirus infection on Thursday, a day after the announcement of a first case in the southern prefecture of Miyazaki.
Confirmed coronavirus infections have risen above 1,000 nationwide, with 36 new cases reported Wednesday - the biggest one-day increase to date - in locations ranging from Kumamoto prefecture in the southwest, to Hokkaido in the north. Twelve people have died from the disease, according to the health ministry.
The rapid spread of the outbreak has raised questions about whether Tokyo can host the Olympics as scheduled from July 24.
Hashimoto told the upper house on Thursday that organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would continue to work together closely. She reiterated the final decision on holding the games as planned rests with the IOC.
Japan's Olympics minister caused controversy earlier this week by saying the contract for the games 'could be interpreted as allowing a postponement' within the year 2020.
On Wednesday, IOC President Thomas Bach said the words 'cancellation' or 'postponement' were not mentioned during two-day meeting focused on preparations for the Games.
Asked what made him so confident the Games would go ahead, Bach said the IOC and 2020 Games organisers were receiving expert information, including from the World Health Organization.