Uncertainty, doubts for Japan's Olympic volunteers, fans

By: AFP      Published: 05:38 PM, 3 Feb, 2021
Uncertainty, doubts for Japan's Olympic volunteers, fans

Mai Tarumi has been looking forward to volunteering at the Tokyo Olympics for years, but now she's wondering if the Games will end up being a disappointment.

With less than six months to go, Japanese who hope to be involved as spectators, torch bearers and volunteers are confronting the prospect of the Olympics being drastically scaled back or cancelled altogether.

For now, organisers say the Games will go ahead, but have warned spectators might be limited or barred altogether -- something Tarumi said would strip the Olympics of what makes it special.

"If you hold it without fans, it would be the same as any other sports event," the 33-year-old told AFP outside the taekwondo venue where she plans to volunteer.

"That's completely different from the Olympics ethos. The Olympics are about gathering people from all over the world, holding the competitions, sharing in a cultural exchange and enjoying the festival.

"That's what makes it the Olympics."

Tokyo 2020 chiefs recruited 80,000 volunteers for last year's original dates, but the 12-month postponement over the coronavirus has left many unable or unwilling to take part this summer.

Tarumi, who was inspired to apply after spending time in Canada during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, intends to volunteer as planned, even if fans are shut out.

But she would prefer Tokyo 2020 to be postponed another year, something organisers have called "absolutely impossible".

Once in a lifetime

A decision on how many spectators will be allowed -- and if foreign fans will be permitted to attend -- is set to be taken in the coming months.

The nationwide Olympic torch relay is scheduled to begin on March 25, despite this week's extension of a virus state of emergency now set to last until March 7.

Despite anti-virus measures, including smaller celebrations and social distancing, 10,000 runners are expected to take part, including 62-year-old karate teacher Kazuo Okano.

Okano says karate's inclusion as an Olympic sport in Tokyo made him want to get involved in the last year's relay, which was called off two days before its start date.

He's still keen to participate this year, even if fewer supporters line the roads.

"I'd be happy even if there were no spectators. It's something you only get the chance to do once in your life," he told AFP.

"If it wasn't being held in Japan, I wouldn't get the chance to do it. If it's possible, I want to do it."

Live atmosphere

For 56-year-old Yoshiko Tanaka, everything hinges on whether spectators will be allowed in.

Tanaka and her family won four tickets for the judo competition, after applying for around 30 different events in Japan's ticket lottery.

Tanaka watched speed skating live at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, but admits she doesn't expect the Tokyo Games to live up to those memories.

"As soon as we got into the venue in Nagano, I was struck by how many people there were," she said.

"I was surprised by how quiet everyone was when the races started, then the noise when the races were won was something I still remember to this day. It was amazing."

"I was struck by how different it is when you watch it live," she added.

"That won't be possible if the Tokyo Olympics are held with no fans."

Tanaka also wants the Games postponed by a year or even until 2024, but says she will understand if the event has to be cancelled.

Tarumi, the volunteer, fears that if the Games go ahead while infections remain high, the Olympic message of hope and equality could be lost.

"If things have returned to normal by then and people are coming from all around the world, it will be a big celebration at having beaten the virus," she said.

"If they push on and hold it in the kind of situation we're in now, though, I think the world will look at it with disdain."