Thousands of volunteers have pulled out of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in recent weeks, organizers said, fuelling concerns Japan may not be ready to host the rescheduled Games as the country struggles to rein in a new wave of Covid-19 cases.
About 10,000 of the 80,000 registered volunteers supporting athletic events had quit as of Wednesday, according to Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee officials.
Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the Organizing Committee, told Japanese media he does not believe the volunteer withdrawals will impact the operation of the Games, which were postponed last year due to the pandemic. The rescheduled event is due to start on July 23.
Volunteers are an instrumental part of the Summer Olympics. They help staff operate Olympic facilities and venues, and assist spectators and athletes. So if more continue to drop out, it could pose additional difficulties for organizers.
However, no foreign spectators are allowed into Japan for the Games, so organizers may not need as many volunteers as other host cities have in years past.
Though officials did not say why most of the 10,000 volunteers quit, it is likely tied to the pandemic.
Opinion polls show most of the Japanese public oppose holding the Olympics, with hospitals overwhelmed by a fourth wave of Covid-19 cases and the vast majority of people still unvaccinated.
The country has reported more than 752,000 total coronavirus cases and more than 13,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Daily new cases have been in the low thousands in recent days, declining from a fourth-wave peak of nearly 8,000 on April 29.
Japan’s vaccine rollout has also gone much slower than expected. While there is enough supply to vaccinate much of the country’s 126 million people, there is a bottleneck of medical professionals available to administer them. Only nurses, doctors and dentists can legally give vaccines.
Currently, just the elderly and medical professionals are eligible to receive a vaccine. Muto, the CEO of the Olympic Organizing Committee, said doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be provided to Olympic athletes, but not to volunteers, who are being asked to use public transportation to commute to the Games. Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa said the IOC would give Japan 20,000 vaccines, but negotiations for who receives those doses are ongoing.
Meanwhile, a group of United States public health experts warned that pushing ahead with the Olympics as planned could put athletes and the public at risk. They said Japanese authorities and Tokyo 2020 organizers needed to reconsider their approach to risk management and recognize the limits of measures like temperature screening.
“We believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence,” the authors wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. “For us to connect safely, we believe urgent action is needed for these Olympic Games to proceed.”