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Tokyo 2020 organizing committee chief won't rule out last-minute cancellation of Olympics

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TOKYO -- The chief of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee on Tuesday did not rule out a last-minute cancellation of the Olympics, as more athletes tested positive for COVID-19 and major sponsors ditched plans to attend Friday's opening ceremony.

Asked at a news conference whether the global sporting showpiece might still be canceled, Toshiro Muto said he would keep an eye on infection numbers and liaise with other organizers if necessary.

"We can't predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases. So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases," Muto said.

"We have agreed that based on the coronavirus situation, we will convene five-party talks again. At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises."

COVID-19 cases are rising in Tokyo, and the Games, postponed last year because of the pandemic, will be held without spectators. Japan this month decided that participants would compete in empty venues to minimize health risks.

There have been 67 cases of COVID-19 infections in Japan among those accredited for the Games since July 1, when many athletes and officials started arriving, organizers said Tuesday.

Japan, with a vaccination program that has lagged that of most other developed nations, has recorded more than 840,000 cases and 15,055 deaths, and Games host city Tokyo is experiencing a fresh surge, with 1,387 cases recorded Tuesday.

Muto, a former top financial bureaucrat with close ties to Japan's ruling party, is known for his careful choice of words, while officials are facing a domestic public angry about coronavirus restrictions and concerned over a possible spike in cases triggered by Games attendees arriving from abroad.

Organizers, for whom International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said canceling the event had never been an option, have promised to keep the Games "safe and secure."

But experts see gaps in an Olympic "bubble" that mandates frequent testing and has been designed to limit participants' movements.

Seiko Hashimoto, who sits alongside Muto as organizing committee president, said that safety measures introduced to reassure the Japanese public had not necessarily done so and that she was aware that popular support for the Games had dropped.

"I really want to apologize from my heart for the accumulation of frustrations and concerns that the public has been feeling towards the Olympics," Hashimoto told the same news conference.

'Unprecedented challenges'

The first major test of how an Olympics can be held in the midst of a pandemic may well come in the men's soccer tournament, when Japan faces a South Africa side that could struggle to field 11 players due to the coronavirus.

That match is due to take place Thursday, a day before an opening ceremony that top sponsor Panasonic Corp. as well as Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp will skip. Toyota Motor Corp. dropped all TV ads linked to the Games on Monday.

Bach, who Kyodo news agency said would meet Japan's Emperor Naruhito on Thursday, said on Tuesday that organizers could never have imagined the "unprecedented challenges" of bringing the global event to Tokyo, praising the "heroic efforts" of medical personnel and volunteers around the world amid the pandemic.

Two members of Mexico's Olympic baseball team tested positive for COVID-19 at the team hotel before their departure for Tokyo, the country's baseball federation said Tuesday.

The athletes, Hector Velazquez and Sammy Solis, who tested positive on July 18, have been isolated, as have all team members pending results of more tests, the federation said.

Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute for Population Health at King's College London, said that the organizers' bubble system was already "kind of broken."

"My biggest concern is, of course, there will be a cluster of infections in the [athletes] village or some of the accommodation and interaction with local people," he added.

Hashimoto said members of the public were concerned "because they feel that the current situation appears to show that the playbooks that were meant to guarantee security is not providing a sense of safety."

In a poll in the Asahi newspaper, 68% of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organizers to control coronavirus infections, with 55% saying they were opposed to the Games going ahead.