Sapporo hopes Tokyo Olympics will boost 2030 bid

The Tokyo Olympics will not be able to take place next summer unless a COVID-19 vaccine is found, a leading Japanese vaccine researcher has told Sky News. Photo: Sky News. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

SAPPORO, Aug 6, 2021, Kyodo. The northern Japan city of Sapporo was chosen as a haven from Tokyo’s punishing heat and humidity for the Olympic marathon and race walking events, giving it an opportunity to promote its bid to host the 2030 Winter Games, The Mainichi reported.

But the city, currently under a quasi-state of emergency amid a fresh rise in COVID-19 cases, has its work cut out enforcing anti-virus steps among a public eager to take to the roadside to get a taste of the action.

The International Olympic Committee announced plans in October 2019 to move the marathon and race walking to Sapporo, a decision that followed a disastrous world athletics championships in Doha which saw 40 percent of runners in the women’s marathon drop out due to intense heat.

Sapporo on average is about 5 C cooler than Tokyo in the summer months. Still, temperatures rose above 30 C for the first athletics road event, the men’s 20-kilometer race walk on Thursday, fanning concerns about the other competitions later in the week.

The decision to move the events to Sapporo surprised many including Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto, who said he found out about the decision through inquiries from media outlets.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike vigorously opposed the transfer — the metropolitan government had already begun laying a solar heat-blocking pavement along the course as a mitigating measure and tickets had been sold and would need refunding.

But the IOC insisted there was no other option, and Akimoto later embraced the move, saying his initial surprise gave way to feeling “honored” and that ensuring the success of the transferred Olympic events would be crucial for Sapporo’s bid for the Winter Games.

The Japanese Olympic Committee initially wanted the city to aim for 2026 before a major earthquake forced it to switch to 2030, pitting it against Barcelona-Pyrenees and possibly Salt Lake City and Vancouver.

Sapporo is the fifth most populous city in Japan and capital of the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, a popular destination for winter sports and the country’s agricultural heartland.

The city, located about 830 kilometers from Tokyo, has hosted the Winter Games once before, in 1972. Many older residents have fond memories of that time and are eager to catch some of the action this week.

But the Tokyo Games organizing committee is calling on the public to refrain from cheering on competitors in the marathon and race walk events from the roadside, citing concerns over spreading COVID-19. The other events the city hosted — 10 soccer matches in the group stage — were held in Sapporo Dome without spectators.

Enforcing that rule will likely be challenging, especially on the marathon course, which covers significant ground starting in the heart of the city in Sapporo Odori Park, running south through the Susukino entertainment district and over the Toyohira River before looping back north toward the Hokkaido University campus.

People lined the streets for the men’s 20 km race walk, most wearing masks but some cheering on the athletes loudly.

A 65-year-old social studies teacher who was visiting from Tokyo said he was determined to catch a glimpse of the action. “You can’t watch anything in Tokyo, so that’s why I took a few days off work to come here.”

The teacher, who declined to give his name, said he had watched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on TV when he was little and been inspired by the experience.

“I was looking forward to reliving that experience but the current situation won’t allow it. I’m sure there will be other people who want to watch too.”

The organizing committee has set up fences around Sapporo Station, put up signs urging people to stay home, and enlisted about 2,000 staff to keep crowds from forming, with one official saying they have “taken every measure we could think of.”

But some residents expressed worries that the Olympics could trigger a fresh surge in infections.

“A lot of us have been worried about holding the marathon and race walking here,” said Manabu Kuwahara, 49, who works at a building materials firm in central Sapporo.

“To be honest, some of that skepticism seems to have subsided after seeing Japanese athletes do so well. But a lot of people will be coming here from outside of Hokkaido for the Olympics, and I’m worried the situation will worsen again.”

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