Olympics will allow fans despite doctor recommendations, but loud cheering 'will be prohibited'

TOKYO, JAPAN - 2021/03/11: People wearing facemasks are seen behind the Olympic symbols of the five interlaced rings near the National Stadium in Tokyo.
About 80% of Japanese in recent polls say the Olympics should be postponed or cancelled, and almost as many do not want fans from abroad. (Photo by James Matsumoto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Most Japanese people wanted the Olympics postponed or canceled. Organizers are not only going ahead with the Games, they're allowing in-person attendance. (Photo by James Matsumoto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Tokyo Olympics organizers said Monday that a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the 2021 Games in person.

The International Olympic Committee, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, and the governments of Japan and Tokyo jointly announced that they'd cap attendance at 50% of each venue's capacity, "up to 10,000" local spectators.

Those who do attend will be required to wear masks "at all times." Organizers also said in a news release that "speaking in a loud voice or shouting will be prohibited."

Organizers had already barred foreign fans from traveling to attend the Games. They delayed their decision on domestic fans while Tokyo was under a state of emergency due to relatively high COVID-19 transmission rates.

But since May, the positivity rate in Tokyo has fallen from 9% to roughly 4%, and daily case counts have dipped from over 900 to under 400. The state of emergency was lifted on Sunday, though some focused restrictions are still in place. Less than 24 hours later, organizers announced their decision.

"However," organizers said in their news release, "in the event that a state of emergency or other priority measures aimed at preventing infection are implemented at any time after July 12, restrictions on spectator numbers at the Games, including non-spectator competitions, will be based on the content of the state of emergency or other relevant measures in force at that time."

Olympics organizers ignore resistance, official medical recommendation

Throughout the spring, with vaccination rollout lagging and COVID-19 still more prevalent in Tokyo than it had been earlier in the pandemic, public opinion polling showed that most Japanese people wanted the Olympics either postponed again or canceled. A petition that received over 400,000 signatures called for cancellation.

Many citizens and infectious disease experts worried that the Games would contribute to more COVID spread, and the prospect of live audiences was part of that worry. Just last week, Japan's top medical advisor, Shigeru Omi, recommended that the Olympics "not have fans inside venues."

Omi, a former World Health Organization official, delivered the recommendation to the Japanese government and Olympic organizers with the backing of a 26-member panel of experts. “Regardless of holding the Olympics or not," he said, "Japan has continuing risks of a resurgence of the infections that puts pressure on the medical systems.”

Organizers bucked that recommendation, but did settle on countermeasures to minimize COVID-related risks. In addition to the mask mandate and the prohibition on loud cheering, they have plans to avoid congestion in concourses via staggered exits. And they urged spectators to "travel directly to venues and return home directly," rather than venture into the city before and afterward.

The IOC has said that it expects a majority of athletes and Olympic participants to be vaccinated in time for the Games, and it has elaborate plans to prevent virus spread within and outside of the Olympic bubble. Among the Japanese public, though, despite accelerating vaccination rates, less than 20% of adults have received one dose.

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How Tokyo Olympics will distribute tickets

Organizers did not say that vaccination would be a prerequisite for Games attendance. Instead, attendance will be managed by a lottery system similar to the one that originally distributed tickets to Japanese citizens.

Prior to the pandemic, local ticket demand had been higher for the Tokyo Olympics than for any previous edition of the Games. When the pandemic forced organizers to postpone the 2020 Olympics by 12 months to 2021, they offered ticket buyers an opportunity to seek refunds. Organizers said Monday that some 840,000 tickets had been refunded, out of 4.48 million initially sold to locals.

With venue capacity limits in place, however, the Olympics can no longer accommodate 3.64 million tickets. So those who haven't sought refunds will now have to enter a second lottery if they still wish to attend events.

Tokyo Organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto said Monday that the new total attendance number is 2.72 million. Roughly 910,000 ticket holders won't be able to attend. (The capacity limits don't apply to official Olympics stakeholders, including sponsor representatives and sports executives.)

Overall attendance, however, will be less than half of original projections, because all tickets bought by foreign fans have been nullified — and refunded in some cases, though not in all. Muto said that revenue from ticket sales would also be less than half the original projection, which was $817 million. The shortfall will hit the Japanese government, and by extension taxpayers, not the IOC.

All of this will have to be sorted out before the Games begin with soccer and softball competitions on July 21. The opening ceremony is two days later, July 23.

A final decision on fans at the Paralympic Games, which begin in August, will be made by July 16, organizers said.

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