‘Can’t help but cheer’: Some in Japan warm to Olympics

TOKYO (AFP) – After months of opposition, some in Japan are warming to the pandemic-hit Olympics, with fans defying authorities to cheer athletes on public roads and rushing to snap up Games merchandise.

It hasn’t hurt that Japan’s athletes have enjoyed a gold rush in the first four days of the Games, triumphing in sports ranging from judo to skateboarding. Fans are barred from almost all events over virus fears, and have been asked to stay away from competitions on public roads.

But they’ve been showing up anyway, determined for a glimpse of Olympic action.

“If you see these athletes running in front of you, you can’t help but cheer for them,” said 42-year-old Hirochika Takeda, who popped out of his apartment to see the women’s triathlon passing by in the rain.

“I had questions about holding the Olympics right up until the opening ceremony,” the IT professional said.

“But once the sport began, I started to feel that maybe this is a good thing.” The Games opened on Friday, with tens of thousands of athletes, officials and media arriving in Japan from around the world. Because of the virus, the Olympics are taking place under a state of emergency in Tokyo that means fans are barred from venues and there is high anxiety about rising infections.

A man walks past banners set up for the Tokyo Olympics. PHOTO: AP

But when the opening ceremony rolled around on Friday, thousands of people crowded around the Olympic Stadium to soak in the atmosphere and see the fireworks from outside, far outnumbering a group of anti-Games protesters.

And those at home were equally intrigued, with viewing figures showing over 50 per cent of households in Tokyo watched the ceremony live on TV. There has also been a surge in demand for Tokyo 2020 trinkets, according to shopowners and organisers.

“Stores have become explosively busy,” said Hikari Iinuma, of Tokyo 2020’s licensing department.

Stores set up specifically to sell Tokyo Olympic items that had shut down for lack of customers are now re-opening, she said.

“The trend is very clear in Tokyo,” added Iinuma, who declined to give figures on sales, but said popular items included T-shirts, mugs and towels.

It might be no coincidence that the change of heart has coincided with a winning streak for home athletes.

Japan’s nine gold medallists up to yesterday afternoon include 13-year-old skateboarder Momiji Nishiya, brother-and-sister judokas Hifumi and Uta Abe and table tennis pair Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito.

Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University, said the post-victory comments from Japanese athletes might be helping to soften opposition to the Games.

“Rather than bursts of raw emotions, they are… voicing their appreciation for this opportunity,” he told AFP.

“What we are seeing is restrained enthusiasm,” Ishizaka said.

The change of heart is not universal, and many people are still worried about virus risks. A poll in the Nikkei newspaper published on Monday found 31 per cent still believed the Games should have been postponed or cancelled, though nearly 70 per cent backed holding it in some form.

“I feel people are forgetting the coronavirus,” said Chintan Makwana, an Indian resident of Tokyo who said he was unnerved by the crowds in his neighbourhood watching events.

“For those of us who live here, it is scary,” the software engineer said.

Yesterday, Tokyo reported a record 2,848 new daily virus cases. The figure may include cases that were not reported over the long weekend, but infections were already rising.

In Tokyo’s Odaiba area, hundreds of people defied authorities and the rain to cheer competitors in the women’s triathlon yesterday

Nearly all wore masks and restricted themselves to clapping, and those who did shout stood a distance from others. “Ganbatte, ganbatte),” cheered Atsuko Kawata, a retiree from a nearby neighbourhood as the athletes ran past.

“I don’t know anything about this sport, but I’m happy to see them. I’m going to brag about this to my kids,” she added cheerfully.

“All kinds of things were said about the Olympics, but I wanted to support these athletes.”