TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga admitted it had been difficult to sell the Tokyo Olympics to people in his country, many of whom fear the influx of athletes from around the world could fuel the Covid crisis. 19.
But in an exclusive interview with NBC News, he insisted the Summer Olympics would open as scheduled on Friday and ultimately be a success.
“I think canceling the Games is very easy to do,” Suga told NBC’s Keir Simmons earlier this week when asked if he had ever considered ending the sporting event that has already been delayed for a year by the pandemic and that polls continue to show that many Japanese are against it. “What worried me the most was that public opinion was so divided.”
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“But Japan applied and was chosen as the host country,” he said. “And as the host nation of the Games, I think we have to fulfill our obligation to the rest of the world.”
Recent polls, including one published this week by The Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper, have suggested that up to 70% of the Japanese public want the Games canceled or postponed amid an increase in Covid cases in the country .
While infections and death rates are low in Japan compared to the United States, Suga declared a state of emergency earlier this month as the number of new cases of Covid began to rise. And on July 8, organizers announced the Games would go without spectators, fearing the influx of athletes, journalists and other visitors could endanger the Japanese.
Despite repeated assurances from Suga and other senior Japanese officials that the Olympics would be “safe and secure,” already some 80 people involved in the Games – including half a dozen athletes – have tested positive for Covid.
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Hosting the world’s biggest sports competition amid the Covid crisis is “difficult,” he agreed, but said the benefits for Japan would ultimately be huge.
“As I mentioned earlier, over 4 billion people around the world will watch these Olympics,” Suga said. “In this context, overcoming the difficulties of the coronavirus and being able to organize the Games, I think there is real value in that.”
(NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, paid $ 7.5 billion to extend its media rights to the US Olympics until 2032. NBCUniversal is the International Olympic Committee’s largest source of revenue.)
Suga expressed his joy that First Lady Jill Biden is coming to the Games.
“For Japan, our only real ally is America,” he said. “In that sense, in terms of impact, I’m incredibly happy that the first lady is coming to Japan and want to give her a warm welcome.”
Suga spoke as Japan’s vaccination program continues at a slow pace. According to the latest statistics, only 22.4% of people here are fully vaccinated. It has succeeded in reducing the number of deaths and illnesses by keeping those infected out of the country, insisting on masks and social distancing, and enforcing strict quarantines for those who test positive.
The 72-year-old prime minister, the son of a strawberry farmer, grew nostalgic when he recalled watching the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
“I was a high school student,” he says. “At the time, I was moved by the exploits of Japanese volleyball, gymnastics and marathon athletes during the first Olympic Games in Tokyo. The impact has been so great that these memories of 50 years ago still come back to me.
When Suga was pressed to predict whether Japan would win more medals than the United States, he laughed and said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
But still the gracious host, the Prime Minister gave a diplomatic response.
“We are the host country and the Japanese people are quite modest,” Suga said. “Therefore, we want to share the medals with everyone. “
Corky Siemaszko reported from Tokyo and Laura Saravia reported from London.
Laura Saravia contributed.