By Eimi Yamamitsu and Sakura Murakami
TOKYO (Reuters) -The United States’ track and field team has cancelled its pre-Olympics training camp in Japan out of concerns for safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, local authorities announced on Wednesday, raising more questions about the holding of the Games.
The team was set to train in Chiba, the prefecture neighbouring Tokyo, leading up to the summer Games, but cancelled “out of concerns for their athletes safety”, according to a statement from the Chiba administration.
There was no immediate comment from USA Track and Field.
“It is a shame they have decided to cancel, but I believe they made the best decision possible in the current situation,” Chiba governor Toshihito Kumagai said in the statement.
With less than three months to go before the Games begin on July 23, Japan is battling a surge in coronavirus infections, and a majority of the population wants them cancelled or postponed for a second time.
Public concerns have also caused angst among sponsors, with a top executive of one, Toyota Motor Corp, saying company officials felt “conflicted” over the desire to see the Olympics succeed and public concerns about holding the event during a pandemic. “As sponsors, it breaks our heart to see public discontent aimed at athletes,” the automaker’s operating officer, Jun Nagata, told an earnings briefing on Wednesday.
“To be honest, we are conflicted every day over what the best course of action is.” To forestall a virus outbreak during the event, Japan is preparing to offer vaccinations to about 2,500 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and support staff, using donated shots.
However, just 2.6% of the population has been vaccinated, and reports last month of priority for athletes spurred criticism on social media amid public anger over the slow pace of the inoculation campaign.
“Our officials are saying we’ll make sure we don’t cause trouble for the overall population,” said Miho Kuroda of the Japan Paralympic Committee.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said vaccinations could start as early as June, but officials said the timing and details, such as who would give the inoculations, remain unclear.
Last week, Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE said they would donate vaccine doses to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to help inoculate athletes and their delegations to both Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Japan has only approved the Pfizer vaccine, though approval for others is imminent. Vaccinations have also been slowed by supply issues and rules that only doctors or nurses can give the shots, although dentists received permission last month.
The IOC, organisers in Japan and the government have repeatedly vowed to hold the Games as scheduled until Aug. 8, despite rampant criticism.
The governor of Ibaraki prefecture, which is to host some Olympic soccer events, said a further postponement or outright cancellation should be considered if the pandemic worsened.
“I don’t think we can gain the understanding of the international community, let alone Japan, if we were to host the Olympics in the midst of a medical collapse,” Governor Kazuhiko Ooigawa told reporters on Tuesday.
In an article on Tuesday titled, “A sports event shouldn’t be a superspreader,” the New York Times newspaper joined the calls for cancellation.
“It’s time to listen to science and halt the dangerous charade,” it said.
Japan has escaped the worst of the pandemic, but 11,000 people have died and the medical system has been severely stretched by the latest surge, with 925 new infections on Tuesday in Tokyo, the capital.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, Eimi Yamamitsu, Sakura Murakami and Chang-ran Kim; Writing by Elaine Lies and Sakura Murakami; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Raju Gopalakrishnan)