By Chang-Ran Kim and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday that Group of Seven leaders had agreed to support a “complete” Olympics, but dodged questions about whether any of the leaders had brought up the possibility of postponement.
His comments come as concerns mount about whether the Games can proceed as planned now that the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic has brought business and social activity in countries across the world to a standstill and panic to financial markets.
A fresh domestic poll showed most Japanese believe the Games should be postponed.
However, the Olympic torch relay will start in Japan as planned later this month, Tokyo Organising Committee CEO Toshiro Muto said on Tuesday. But parts of it will be closed to the public and some events cancelled amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The so-called “grand start” of the relay due to begin in Fukushima prefecture, hit by the March 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, will take place on March 26 but without spectators, Muto said.
In an unprecedented meeting with other G7 leaders by videoconference to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, Abe said he had told them: “We are doing everything in our power to prepare (for the Games), and we want to aim for a complete event as proof that mankind can defeat the new coronavirus.”
When pressed at a briefing about whether there had been discussion of a delay, Abe repeated the same line.
Interpreting Abe’s comments at a news conference hours later, Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto said a “complete” event referred to holding the Games this summer as scheduled, with spectators present.
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also dodged a question about the timing of the Games, repeating the government’s stance that it continued to work with the International Olympic Committee, organising members and the Tokyo government on preparations.
An Asahi newspaper poll published on Tuesday showed 63% of people across Japan said the games should be postponed, while 23% said they should be held as planned. A similar poll by Kyodo News published on Monday showed almost 70% of respondents do not think Tokyo will be able to host the gathering as planned.
Tokyo Games chief Muto said: “There is a possibility these public opinions can shift as the situation is changing ahead” referring to the polls.
At the G7 video conference, leaders committed to doing “whatever is necessary” to battle the coronavirus pandemic and to work together more closely to protect public health, jobs and growth, and issued a statement promising to address the health and economic risks.
John Coates, the IOC’s point man for the Tokyo Games, told Australia’s Fairfax media that there was no need to make a call on the Games by May, as IOC committee member Dick Pound had previously suggested.
“The IOC didn’t recognise any dates that Dick came up with and I think Dick backed off that as well,” Coates, the IOC Coordination Commission chairman was quoted as saying in the report. “It’s all proceeding to start on the 24th of July.”
The virus has infected almost 180,000 people and killed over 7,000 worldwide, with the epicentre now in Europe. Sports competitions have come to a halt in Europe, hampering athletes’ preparations.
Further stoking those concerns, the head of the French Olympic Committee said on Monday the pandemic must have reached its peak and be on the wane by the end of May for the Tokyo Olympics to be staged on schedule.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said the worst of the virus could be over by July or August, a more specific and lengthier timeframe than he has previously suggested.
For the torch relay, the organizing committee’s CEO Muto proposed fans watch the event via live web broadcast, and asked anyone who is not well not to come to the relay route.
“If it’s overcrowded in the big streets, runners may face changes,” he said regarding the possibility of replacing torch bearers more often.
Greece’s Olympic Committee last week cancelled the remainder of the Olympic Torch relay through the country to avoid attracting crowds that could raise the risk of virus contagion.
The Olympics are due to run from July 24 to Aug. 9.
(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Rocky Swift, Ju-min Park and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Edwina Gibbs and Hugh Lawson)