An anti-Olympics protest briefly took the spotlight off the Tokyo Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies Friday night, as chants from the crowd outside the nearly empty billion-dollar Olympic stadium could be heard by the 950 dignitaries allowed inside.
“Hundreds” of Olympic protesters joined a march through Tokyo Friday, calling for the Games to be canceled in light of a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in Tokyo, Japan. The march ran along one side of the massive Olympic stadium, meant to hold 70,000 but now sitting mostly empty, even during the typically packed Olympic opening ceremonies.
USA Today reported that the “crowd spanned nearly the entirety of a street that runs along the western part of the Olympic Stadium on Friday night, with metal barricades and rows of police officers separating onlookers from the stadium.”
“Most of those gathered seemed to be milling about, perhaps to be present for history or take in the fireworks,” the outlet noted. “But there was also an anti-Olympic protest in front of a clothing store across the street from the southwestern corner of the stadium, where protesters with microphones chanted throughout the first hour of the opening ceremony.”
There may not be any fans in the stadium for the opening ceremony, but there’s a huge crowd gathered outside — including an anti-Olympic protest. pic.twitter.com/IRTQgqkuqL
— Tom Schad (@Tom_Schad) July 23, 2021
The crowd gathered not just in defiance of Olympic COVID-19 protocols, which largely forbid spectators in the typically spectator-heavy events, but in defiance of Japan’s own anti-COVID protocols, which have been in greater force in recent weeks as the country struggles with its largest spike in cases since 2020.
Japan also has a very low vaccination rate. According to Reuters, approximately 30% of Japanese people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and that’s up significantly from the end of June when the rate was just 12%.
“Public polls in Japan have long indicated that the majority of citizens would have preferred to see the Games canceled or postponed a second time amid the continued spread of COVID-19,” USA Today noted. “In a poll conducted by Kyodo News last weekend, 87% of respondents expressed concern about hosting the Olympics during a pandemic, while 31.2% said they believed the Games should be canceled.”
“The protesters initially gathered outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, chanting ‘no to the Olympics’ and ‘save people’s lives,'” Fox News reported. “Some were holding signs that read ‘cancel the Olympics.'”
Sports journalists in attendance at the opening ceremonies noted on social media that protesters outside the stadium could be heard throughout the first hour of performances.
— Lori Ewing (@Ewingsports) July 23, 2021
Although the protest was small, the sheer presence of protesters was more than the Olympic Committee likely bargained for — and the protests go beyond just demonstrations. Two major sponsors of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese companies Toyota and Asahi Shimbun (which publishes a major Japanese newspaper) both expressed concern over holding the Games. Toyota pulled its ads from domestic airwaves, and Asahi demanded the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, take action.
“We cannot think it’s rational to host the Olympics in the city this summer,” Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial published ahead of the Games. “We Demand PM Suga Decide Cancellation.”
“Distrust and backlash against the reckless national government, Tokyo government and stakeholders in the Olympics are nothing but escalating. We demand Prime Minister Suga to calmly evaluate the circumstances and decide the cancellation of the summer event,” the editors added.
Tokyo organizers kept the possibility of cancellation open through the beginning of the Games, but competition is now expected to move forward, with significant precautions.
“As of Friday morning, 110 people connected with the Olympics had tested positive for COVID-19, including 13 athletes and 12 people who were residing in the Olympic Village at the time of their test. Organizers have said they expected to see some positive COVID-19 cases and they believe the Games will be held in a safe and secure fashion,” USA Today said.
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