Olympic Games – Amid opposition, the Japanese Prime Minister says “the Olympic Games never come first”.

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The giant Olympic rings can be seen over the sea during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Tokyo, Japan on Jan. 22, 2021. REUTERS / Kim Kyung-Hoon

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By Leika Kihara and Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday that he never put the Olympics first. On the same day, an opinion poll found that nearly 60% of people in Japan want the Olympics to be canceled less than three months in advance.

Japan has extended the state of emergency in Tokyo to the end of May and is struggling to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, raising further questions about whether the Games should continue. The vaccination rate is the lowest among rich nations.

International Olympic officials, Tokyo planners and Suga himself have insisted that the Games be held “safely and securely”. Foreign viewers have been banned and planners issued a detailed set of rules last month to prevent coronavirus infections.

However, a public opinion poll conducted May 7-9 by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun found that 59% wanted the Games to be canceled, compared with 39% who said they should be held. “Postponement” was not offered as an option.

Another poll conducted by TBS News over the weekend found that 65% wanted the games to be canceled or rescheduled. 37% voted in favor of canceling the event altogether and 28% requested a further delay. More than 300,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the games in about five days since they started.

Asked at a parliamentary committee meeting whether the Games will continue even if COVID-19 infections rise, Suga replied, “I’ve never put the Olympics first.”

“My priority has been to protect the life and health of the Japanese people. We must first prevent the virus from spreading,” he added.

He reiterated that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the final say on the fate of the Games and that it is the government’s responsibility to take steps so that they can be kept safe. Several test events with foreign athletes were successfully carried out, the last one on Sunday.

According to media reports, arrangements are being made for IOC chief Thomas Bach, who was widely expected to visit Japan in mid-May and June, with the lifting of the state of emergency being a requirement.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said last week that it was “difficult” for Bach to visit him in the middle of a state of emergency.

An official in western Okayama Prefecture said Monday he was considering keeping the Olympic torch relay off public roads when it drives through next week. Although other prefectures have taken similar steps, at this point they were in a state of emergency or other restrictions.

Top Olympic official John Coates said Saturday that Japanese sentiment regarding the Games was “a problem” but he could not foresee a scenario in which the sporting extravaganza would not take place.

But on Sunday, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka said that although she has waited all her life to attend the Olympics, the risks of an event in Tokyo should be carefully discussed.

The games open on July 23rd and run until August 8th.

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