Olympic organizers said on Monday that up to 10,000 domestic spectators will be allowed at Tokyo 2020 venues, a decision that goes against medical experts’ advice that holding the event without supporters is the least harmful option.
The announcement puts an end to months of suspense and demonstrates Japan’s determination to continue with the Games and save the multibillion-dollar spectacular despite public outcry and fears of a resurgence of illnesses.
The decision was widely expected after some recent comments by organizers and as the government’s own medical experts last week appeared resigned to the event going ahead with fans.
Japan has largely avoided the kind of explosive coronavirus outbreaks that have devastated other countries, but the vaccine roll-out was initially slow and the medical system pushed to the brink in some places.
The restriction for the Games, which start on July 23, “will be set at 50% of venue capacity, up to a maximum of 10,000 persons,” according to organizers.
However, applauding for a win or a brave underdog will most likely be muted because yelling will be disallowed. Organizers also stated that masks would be necessary, and that spectators should travel directly to locations and return home.
According to organizers, numbers could be further decreased after July 12 depending on if “quasi emergency” COVID-19 procedures, which were set to expire the day before, are extended or any other anti-infection measures in place at the time.
Spectators from overseas have already been banned. The national stadium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and due to host athletics and soccer this time, would have held 68,000 fans but now will be at a sliver of that.
However, television partnerships, such as one with NBCUniversal for 17 nights of primetime coverage in the United States, will ensure that the Games be broadcast worldwide.
According to Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto, organizers are still debating whether or not to allow alcohol to be served in venues. Despite the concerns of experts, Hashimoto had earlier stated that she was considering letting up to 10,000 fans.
On Friday, some of the country’s leading health experts agreed that prohibiting spectators would be the safest option.
“I am concerned not just about the increase in the number of people coming to watch the Olympics itself but also about the loosening of people’s sense of urgency by hosting the Olympics with spectators,” Haruka Sakamoto, a physician and researcher at Keio University, told Reuters before the decision.
Some 65% of the public want the event postponed again or cancelled, a poll by broadcaster Asahi News Network found. Nearly 70% said they thought the Games would not be held safely and securely, the poll showed.
Events with spectators have already been happening in Japan. Some 7,600 fans attended a Yakult Swallows pro baseball game in Tokyo on Sunday.
“Spectators will come from various places and enter the venue, possibly leading to an influx of people and clusters, so this is a concern if that happens,” said 48-year-old IT worker Masahiro Gomi.
“However, it seems like sports such as baseball are taking place as usual so I think 10,000 spectators may be alright.”
Ticket revenues are likely to be reduced by more than half from an earlier expected 90 billion yen ($817.14 million), Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told a briefing.
He said he wanted to discuss with the Tokyo and national governments on how to cover the shortfall.
Initially organisers sold some 4.48 million tickets and the government had expected a windfall for tourism. Some 840,000 tickets have since been refunded, but the caps mean another decrease, bringing the total number down to 2.72 million tickets, Muto said.
Capping the number of fans at both the Olympics and Paralympics would reduce the expected positive economic impact from the Games by about 5% according to Nomura Research Institute’s Takahide Kiuchi.
The announcement followed five-way talks among Tokyo 2020 organizers, the Japanese government and that of the capital, Tokyo, and the international Olympic and Paralympic committees.
Before the meeting, IOC President Thomas Bach said the vaccination rate for athletes and officials residing in the Olympic village was now “well above 80%”, exceeding the IOC’s initial expectations.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said he would not rule out holding the Olympics without spectators if the capital was under a state of emergency for COVID-19.
“In the event a state of emergency was declared then we can’t rule out not having spectators,” he told reporters during a tour of vaccination sites in Tokyo on Monday.
Last week, Suga decided to lift a state of emergency for Tokyo and eight other prefectures that had suffered a resurgence.
The government retained less tough curbs for seven of the nine prefectures, including Tokyo, until July 11.