First Lady’s Tokyo Travel Confirmed as Olympics Wobbles Towards Opening Ceremony

By Patrick Goodenough | July 21, 2021 | 4:33am EDT
A man walks past a 2020 Olympics sign at the games’ press center in the Japanese capital. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)
A man walks past a 2020 Olympics sign at the games’ press center in the Japanese capital. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

( – A top Japanese Olympic official has warned that the looming Tokyo games could still be called off if coronavirus infections spike, but the White House confirmed on Tuesday that First Lady Jill Biden will lead the presidential delegation to the opening ceremony on Friday.

Last-minute preparations for the postponed games have been plagued by protests by Japanese unhappy about the event going ahead, and the emergence of COVID-19 cases among athletes and staff – including within the athletes’ village, where some 11,000 athletes from around the world are to be accommodated.

Tokyo Olympics organizing committee head Toshiro Muto during a press conference did not rule out the possibility the event could be canceled at the eleventh hour if cases surge significantly.

“We have agreed that based on the coronavirus situation, we will convene five-party talks again,” he said when asked if he could still pull the plug. “At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises.”

The five parties Muto referred to are the committee he heads, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee, the Japanese government, and the Tokyo metropolitan government.

As of Wednesday local time, the IOC reported the number of confirmed cases among people accredited for the games – since it began tracking them on July 1 – had risen to 75, eight of whom are athletes.

The eight include an alternate member on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team – the first American to test positive – a beach volleyball player from the Czech Republic, and two members of the South African men’s soccer team.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a briefing there has been no change to the first lady’s plans.

“She’s still planning on attending the games,” she said. “And she looks forward to supporting, of course, the athletes who are competing on behalf of the United States.”

“We are monitoring the situation closely. Our team will be following very strict safety and health protocols, limiting engagement with the public, keeping our footprint as small as possible.”

The first lady, who will fly to Tokyo via Anchorage, Alaska on Wednesday, will be joined at the opening by the senior U.S. diplomat in Japan, chargé d’affaires ad interim Raymond Greene.

(The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Tokyo since William Hagerty stepped down in mid-2019 ahead of his successful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. President Trump in March 2020 picked Hudson Institute CEO Kenneth Weinstein for the post, but his nomination lapsed at the end of the 116th Congress. Biden reportedly intends to nominate former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the post.)

Many Japanese have expressed concern about hosting the games while the pandemic persists. In the most recent poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun daily, 68 percent of respondents said they did not believe the event could be held safely, and 55 percent said they did not support it going ahead – a number rising to 58 percent in Tokyo.

Since the pandemic began, Japan has recorded 848,000 COVID-19 cases, and more than 15,000 deaths. On Tuesday, 3,836 new cases were reported in Japan, taking the seven-day average to 3,319 cases.

As of Monday, 22.4 percent of Japanese had been fully vaccinated against the disease. IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday that 85 percent of the residents of the Olympic village “have been either vaccinated or are immune” to COVID-19.

Cities bid to host the Olympics years in advance – Tokyo was selected in 2013 – but the emergence in late 2019 of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China set in motion a long series of disappointments for the Japanese capital and the global Olympic movement.

As the pandemic took hold, the IOC in March last year took the decision to postpone the games, originally meant to begin on July 24, 2020, until the summer of 2021.

The postponed games will look like none other in history. Fans from abroad were banned from attending months ago, and last month organizers announced that Olympic venues would only be allowed to be filled to 50 percent of their capacity. Those local fans would have to wear masks and be prohibited from cheering.

Then early this month, the restrictions were extended to include a ban on all spectators from Olympic venues, after the government announced a new state of emergency for the capital as a result of rising case numbers.

The decision was a further blow to athletes, coaches and fans alike, and for the Japanese government it meant having to make up for the resulting loss of ticket revenue worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Friday’s opening ceremony is due to be held at the new National Stadium, a $1.4 billion project that was completed at the end of November 2019 – just weeks before the first cases of an as-yet unknown respiratory illness were reported in Wuhan.

The stadium has a seating capacity of 68,000, but without spectators it’s expected the opening ceremony will be attended by only a small, socially-distanced VIP crowd, with most of the segments pre-recorded.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, events were getting underway on Wednesday, beginning with softball – the U.S. beat Italy in an opening round game – and women’s soccer.

The games are scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8, with the Summer Paralympics due to open on August 24.

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