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IOC members worry about banning foreign fans from Olympics

Tokyo Olympic organizers say a final decision about fans from abroad will be made before the torch relay starts in 2 weeks.

TOKYO, Japan — Several IOC members on Thursday reminded Tokyo Olympic organizers about the potential negative consequences of banning overseas fans from attending the postponed games.

Tokyo organizers say a final decision about fans from abroad will be made before the torch relay starts on March 25. The Olympics open on July 23.

Many unsourced reports in Japan, citing unnamed officials, say the decision has already been made to keep fans from abroad out of the country. Japan has controlled COVID-19 better than most places with about 8,500 deaths attributed to the virus, and the public fears the risk.

“We must find ways to deal with people who have booked and paid for their airplane tickets, games tickets and accommodation and who now may not be able to travel to Tokyo,” IOC member Spyros Capralos said.

He spoke in a virtual session of the full Olympic membership after a presentation by Tokyo organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto and CEO Toshiro Muto.

“And not to forget,” Capralos added. “Many of these people are parents or relatives of the athletes.”

Gunilla Lindberg, an IOC member from Sweden, echoed her Greek colleague.

“We will understand any decision you are taking,” she said. “But the consequences of that decision might be extremely difficult for a lot of people in the world. Maybe you can take that decision as late as possible.”

That seems unlikely.

Muto said it was better if the decision was announced early so that fans have time to get refunds. He tried to guarantee full ticket refunds would be paid. However, that decision rests with the Authorized Ticket Resellers, who deal with sales outside Japan and are appointed by national Olympic committees.

No foreign fans will hurt Tokyo's budget. Organizers expected income of $800 million from ticket sales. Any shortfall will have to be made up by Japanese government entities.

Organizers have said about 7.8 million tickets were originally available for Tokyo with about 70% set aside for local buyers. Organizers said about 4.45 million had been sold in Japan.

Tokyo is officially spending $15.4 billion to prepare the Olympics, but several government audits have suggested it's at least $25 billion. All but $6.7 billion is public money.

“The situation is challenging in Japan and in other countries with regard to the spread of the infection," Muto said. “Whether we can accept overseas spectators will require an extremely careful and vigilant decision.”

IOC President Thomas Bach announced that the Chinese Olympic committee has offered to make vaccine doses available “to participants” in the Tokyo Games and the Beijing Winter Games, which open on Feb. 4, 2022.

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The vaccine rollout in Japan began last month with medical workers and is expected to be available for the elderly in April.

Muto did not suggest that China's offer would change the decision about fans from abroad. And he did not say if Japan would accept it.

“The Japanese government is handling vaccines right now,” he said. “So the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee is not in a position to comment.”

Recent polls show up to 80% in Japan think the Olympics should be postponed or canceled. A similar percentage is opposed to fans from overseas entering during the pandemic.

Muto said a decision on the “upper limit" of venue capacity would be made in April. Filling venues with Japanese fans should not be difficult. Ticket demand before the pandemic was at least 10 times over supply, and relatively few buyers in Japan have sought refunds.

Credit: AP
A woman walks past the Olympic rings in Tokyo, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Reports in Japan say organizers are considering allowing some fans from abroad to attend if they have tickets from sponsors, national Olympic committees, or sports federations.

John Coates, the IOC member who oversees Tokyo preparations, said ticket refunds — if needed — were a “given." Coates said that fans from abroad had been a key part of talks earlier in the day with Muto. He did not say if a decision had been made.

“But we are looking at the other implications of accommodation, looking at implications for national Olympic committees who have sponsors who might have bought tickets. The same with international federations," Coates said. "This will be an ongoing and very urgent discussion. We will have to try and address all these consequences in advance over the next week, but we are very mindful of the uncertainty.”