Tokyo offers a preview of virus-hit Olympics, Latest Others News - The New Paper

Tokyo offers a preview of virus-hit Olympics

Annual marathon a quieter affair with only pockets of spectators and a few hundred runners

A line of masked spectators raises muffled cheers for elite marathon runners, and a baseball bat's thud on a ball echoes around a vast, empty stadium: Sport in Tokyo over the weekend set the tone for how a coronavirus-hit Olympic Games could play out.

For the first time, Japan's professional baseball teams staged pre-season openers behind closed doors after the country dramatically escalated its response to the global coronavirus epidemic by closing schools and cancelling mass events.

In Tokyo, yesterday's staging of the annual marathon, which last year saw close to 38,000 amateur participants, was scaled back to just a few hundred professional athletes, with the public strongly discouraged from lining the route.

In past years, the event attracted more than a million roadside spectators.

"If the Olympics look like this, it's going to be a sad sight," said 68-year-old shoemaker Hiroshi Enomoto, one of the fistful of spectators cheering on the runners in the downtown area of Asakusa.

The Olympic marathon itself has been moved to Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido because of worries over Tokyo's scorching summer heat, but Enomoto and others wondered whether the weekend's crowdless events were a harbinger of things to come.

"There are maybe 20 per cent of the number of people who came to see the race last year. Normally, it's so packed you can barely breathe," said Enomoto, who remembers seeing the 1964 Olympic torch relay passing through Asakusa.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach have said the Games will go ahead.

Bach said his organisation was "fully committed" to the July 24 start, dismissing other options as "speculation".

Abe on Saturday pledged a second emergency package worth over 270 billion yen (S$3.48b) to tackle the coronavirus, and appealed for cooperation from the public.

At least 230 people have been infected in the country, with five deaths, prompting the cancellations and postponement of mass events such as football and rugby matches.

Japan's sumo association decided yesterday to hold its spring grand tournament, set to begin in Osaka this Sunday, without spectators.

Baseball fans who last Saturday had to swop the 46,000-capacity indoor stadium of the Yomiuri Giants - Japan's version of the New York Yankees - for a sports bar in central Tokyo, said they hoped the virus would not impact the Games.

"I don't think the Olympics will be cancelled. I'd like to see them, so if possible, I want them to go ahead," said Natsuki Tsukamoto, 26, in between sips of beer and bites of fried chicken.

Elsewhere, the manager of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, Hajime Miki, reflected on the importance of spectators to sport after another game played in the absence of fans.

"It made us realise again that the cheering and getting the fans to see the games gives power to the players," said Miki. - REUTERS