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As Most Of Japan Is Under Emergency Orders, Calls Grow To Cancel Olympics

NOEL KING, HOST:

Top athletes have started arriving in Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. The games are scheduled to start in 51 days, even though much of Japan remains under a state of emergency because of COVID. Many people, including a lot of Japanese doctors, want the games to be canceled, but the Japanese government insists they must and will go on. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following this story from Seoul. Hey, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: Who are the athletes arriving now, and how are they getting ready?

KUHN: Well, the ones who got there first were the Aussie women's softballers, and they're going to be pretty much in their own bubble. They're going to be basically confined to their hotel and the playing fields. Meanwhile, Japan has just started vaccinating its own 2,500-strong Olympic delegation. No plans have yet been announced for vaccinating the Paralympic delegation. The IOC says 80% of athletes in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated, but this is optional. Athletes will actually not be required to be vaccinated. And outside the village, less than 3% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and that is the lowest rate for any developed economy.

KING: And yet Olympic organizers insist the games will be safe. If athletes don't have to be vaccinated, if so few people in Japan are vaccinated, how are they going to ensure that?

KUHN: Well, they say that the bubble the athletes are in will be strictly separated from the general public. There will be no overseas spectators. There will be no - possibly there'll be no domestic ones, either, although it hasn't yet been decided. Athletes will be tested daily. They also point to many international sporting events which have been safely held, and they say they can do that, too. They also say they'll have 7,000 doctors and medical staff on hand for the games, but because they're short-handed, they had to lower that target from 10,000.

KING: Japanese doctors are criticizing - many Japanese doctors are criticizing plans to move ahead with the games. What are they criticizing, exactly?

KUHN: Well, Japan's top government medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, today warned lawmakers that holding the games in the middle of this outbreak is just not normal, and that's a strong signal. Others, including the authors of a recent New England Medical Journal article, say that this can be done, but the Olympics have to follow best practices for sporting events. And that's not happening. For example, Olympic athletes will be staying more than one to a room in the village, and, instead of being issued their own face masks, will have to supply their own. Last week, Dr. Naoto Ueyama, who is chairman of the Japan Doctors Union, described a sort of nightmare scenario in which people coming from around the world bring mutant strains of the virus to Tokyo. Let's hear him speak through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAOTO UEYAMA: (Through interpreter) If such a situation were to arise, it could indeed even mean a Tokyo Olympic strain of the virus being named in this way, which would be a huge tragedy and something which would be the target of criticism even for 100 years to come.

KUHN: Now, he's not predicting that the Olympics will spawn a new mutation of the virus. He's just saying it is a possibility that has many doctors worried.

KING: Is the opposition of Japanese doctors and ordinary people enough to stop these games from going ahead?

KUHN: Well, polls suggest there is an overwhelming majority - by some count, 83% - who oppose the games from going ahead as planned, but as Japan's government has said, at the end of the day, it's the International Olympic Committee's decision to make. Tokyo could try to plead with the IOC, say we just can't do this. But right now, both Japanese and international organizers appear adamant about pushing the games through regardless of the cost.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thanks, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "ESOTERIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.