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Tokyo Olympics athletes’ village opens quietly amid COVID-19 fears

The athletes’ village for the Tokyo Olympics officially opened on Tuesday, 10 days before the start of the world’s largest sporting event, but the occasion passed with little fanfare as a renewed coronavirus surge puts a damper on the host city.

 

Unlike in the past, there was no ceremony or special event to welcome athletes and delegation officials to the 44-hectare village in Tokyo’s Harumi waterfront district. Media were also not provided an opportunity to cover the opening, with organizers citing the need to take precautions against the spread of the virus.

 

A large number of police cars were parked outside the village as buses entered the fenced-off complex. National flags could be seen hanging from balconies of some of the 21 residential buildings the complex houses.

 

Hours after the village opened its doors, International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach said Tokyo is the “best-ever prepared” Olympic host city despite the difficult circumstances stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

 

“We are sitting in one boat, and we are rowing together with full force in the same direction,” Bach said as he met with Seiko Hashimoto, head of the organizing committee, for the first time in person since his arrival in Tokyo last Thursday. “Our common target is a safe and secure games for everybody.”

 

However, Bach misspoke when making a reference to Japanese people saying “most importantly also for the Chinese people,” before quickly correcting his mistake, but the slip-up quickly circulated on social media.

 

Bach, who was until recently quarantined at his hotel, will hold a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday afternoon, according to the premier’s office.

 

Olympic athletes need to limit their stays in the village to a minimum by checking in five days before they compete, in principle. They are then required to leave the site within two days after their events finish.

 

Daily coronavirus testing and wearing masks are among the strict precautions being enforced on some 18,000 athletes and officials when they stay at the village.

 

The village, also housing dining halls, a fitness center and a doping control center, will serve as the base for athletes until three days after the closing ceremony on Aug. 8. Facing the challenges of operating in a COVID-19 environment, it also has a fever clinic.

 

But fears remain among many people in Japan that the pandemic-postponed Olympics starting July 23 could be a superspreader event, even though Japanese organizers and the IOC recently decided to hold nearly 100 percent of the competitions without spectators.

 

The opening of the village came a day after a fresh state of emergency took effect in Tokyo.

 

A response to another wave of infections driven by the virus’ more contagious Delta variant, the emergency is aimed at curbing the movement of people and entails restrictions such as barring restaurants from serving alcohol. It is scheduled to run through Aug. 22.

 

Olympic delegations started to arrive in Japan at the beginning of July for pre-games camps, with over 2,200 expected to enter the country in the week through July 18.

 

Already, two members of the Ugandan team, a Serbian athlete and a member of the Israeli delegation, have tested positive for COVID-19, stirring concern about whether Japan’s border controls can keep the virus at bay.

 

The village clinic operates 24 hours a day to enable polymerase chain reaction tests to be conducted and to isolate those confirmed as infected with the virus.

 

Depending on the severity of symptoms, those infected will be hospitalized or sent to quarantine at a designated hotel outside the village.

 

Village residents are permitted to only travel to places they have outlined in activity plans in advance and are prohibited from walking freely outside the site or visiting tourist spots, as well as restaurants and bars.

 

They are advised to keep physical distancing, including when eating at the main dining hall, which will provide up to 45,000 meals a day ranging from Japanese, Western and Asian to halal, vegetarian and gluten-free cuisine, and at the casual dining hall focusing on popular and traditional Japanese dishes.

 

Over 80 percent of residents are expected to be vaccinated, according to the IOC. The village will formally welcome participants of the Paralympics between Aug. 17 and Sept. 8.

 

The main press center also officially opened Tuesday at the Tokyo Big Sight international convention center, located close to many competition venues in the capital’s bay area.

 

The organizers said they expect up to 2,500 media members to use the 24-hour facility each day. The facility with some 750 shared seats for the press also houses the international broadcast center.

 

Due to the coronavirus, the number of press members traveling to Japan for the Olympics and Paralympics has also been cut to 4,600 from the initially expected 8,400.

 

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