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Months Before Japan's Olympic Games, More Pandemic Concerns Are Raised

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Japanese government continues to insist that the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead regardless of the state of the pandemic. But opposition to the games is getting more organized and more intense. Much of Japan is still under a COVID state of emergency, with the start of the games only 70 days away. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Opinion polls show that some 60% of Japanese now want the games canceled. The government has not budged, but now it faces a tough new problem. It needs to secure medical resources for the Olympics. But some medical institutions and local governments are saying they don't have any to spare. Toshihito Kumagai is the governor of Chiba Prefecture, which is hosting surfing, wrestling and other events.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOSHIHITO KUMAGAI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "We are not considering securing or allocating hospital beds for people related to the Olympics to use," he said Thursday, "if that means that citizens of our prefecture will not be able to use them."

Only 1% of Japan's population has been fully vaccinated. This week, a publishing company took out a full-page ad in three Japanese newspapers showing a coronavirus image. Beside it were World War II-era pictures of children being trained to fight with wooden weapons. No vaccines, no medication - are we supposed to fight with bamboo spears? - it asked. We'll be killed by politics if things remain unchanged.

Jules Boykoff is a historian of the Olympics at Pacific University in Oregon. He says that organizers are used to shrugging off such criticism.

JULES BOYKOFF: Historically, the International Olympic Committee has been impervious to public opinion. It's their most important thing, and they're not about to lose it to public opinion.

KUHN: He points out that 90% of Olympic revenues come from broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorships. So even if the games are reduced to a TV-only spectacle, the IOC still gets paid. But Boykoff says opposition is getting too strong to ignore.

BOYKOFF: What we're seeing in Tokyo and around Japan right now is unparalleled in the recent history of the Olympics, such full-throttle dissent against hosting the games.

KUHN: If the IOC cancels the games, Boykoff says, that decision could leave an important legacy.

BOYKOFF: People realized that there are things that are more important than sports in life - family, friends, public health. These things matter more than sports. They matter more than the money that'll be generated by the Olympics. And that would certainly be a legacy.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "TREMOLO + DELAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.