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'Don't sacrifice lives': doubts grow in Japan over Tokyo Olympics

[TOKYO] Doubts are growing in Japan about the Tokyo Olympics, with growing opposition to holding them as scheduled and some urging officials not to risk lives by pressing ahead during the coronavirus emergency.

Officials like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach have repeatedly insisted preparations should continue to light the Olympic flame on July 24.

But with events from the Premier League to NBA basketball scrapped, and Japanese sport also at a standstill, even US President Donald Trump has suggested putting the Olympics on hold.

Japan has seen relatively few cases, with 814 testing positive and 24 dead. But some people on the streets of Tokyo voiced concern for the fans that would pour in from abroad.

Koki Miura, a 27-year-old employee at an internet company, told AFP: "To be honest, even if Japan overcomes this crisis, we wouldn't receive visitors from the world. I think we'd better not hold it."

"We cannot sacrifice people's lives for it," added Mr Miura, who said the Games should be postponed -- if not cancelled outright.

Public opinion in Japan appears to be moving against the Games. A poll for public broadcaster NHK taken March 6-9 suggested 45 per cent were opposed to going ahead as planned, with 40 percent in favour.

And a new poll of more than 1,000 people released Monday by Japan's Kyodo news agency showed 69.9 percent of respondents believe Tokyo will not be able to hold the Games as scheduled.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has said it is "unthinkable" to cancel the Olympics but the decision rests with the IOC, which is planning emergency talks with international sports federations on Tuesday, according to an IOC source.

Mr Bach has stressed the IOC will follow World Health Organization recommendations regarding a possible postponement. But he has also acknowledged that the cancellation of qualifying events was posing "serious problems".

At the beginning of March, Mr Bach said the IOC would show "flexibility" regarding qualifications for the Tokyo, and encouraged "all athletes to continue to prepare" for the Games.

- 'Look at the panic' -

Masao Sugawara, a 90-year-old pensioner, told AFP: "Personally, I think it would be safer to postpone the Olympics for a year, just as President Trump said. Look at the panic."

"Of course it would be disappointing, though," he admitted.

Manfred Otto, 45, a half-Japanese, half-German lawyer, said he was "worried" about the Games and stressed: "We really need to be careful."

"If the outbreak does not get controlled by June or July, I think we should postpone it," said Mr Otto.

The betting odds are increasingly shifting towards the opening ceremony not taking place on July 24. Bookmaker Paddy Power is offering 4-1 against the Games opening on time.

This comes as the virus -- which has killed 6,400 people worldwide -- shreds the international sporting calendar, with almost no elite sporting action taking place last weekend.

Preparations for the Games have already been affected, with qualifiers cancelled, test events scaled back and the Olympic torch arrival and relay altered.

Plans have been scrapped to involve hundreds of children in the torch's arrival ceremony, while an exhibition and three events to display the flame have also been axed.

Cancelling the Olympics would be a heartbreaking decision for Tokyo residents who rushed to buy tickets, and authorities whose preparations have won widespread praise -- with the majority of venues ready well ahead of schedule.

Hisaya Suzuki, 47, said he had tickets to see baseball, Japan's most popular sport.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I really wanted to take my son," he said, but added: "If there will be negative consequences, it may be wiser to pause it (the Games)."

Mr Sugawara said the magnitude of the coronavirus trumped sporting considerations.

"I am 90 years old. Except for wartime, I have never felt so worried."

AFP