June 4 2021
TOKYO – Municipalities across Japan registered for the government’s “Host Town” program for pre-Tokyo Paralympics training camps and cultural exchanges are being required to cover additional COVID-19-related costs out of their own pockets, and some are giving up on the move.
While basic costs for dealing with the novel coronavirus are being subsidized by the government, additional measures required to ensure safe transportation and accommodation of disabled athletes are not.
“It costs millions of yen,” said a person in charge for a municipality far from the Tokyo metropolitan area, scheduled to welcome around 100 athletes and staff in several groups until right before the Paralympics’ Aug. 24 opening.
To ensure the visitors do not make unnecessary contact with the public, the municipality has contracted an outside firm to prepare special routes within Tokyo’s Haneda airport, shinkansen stations and to accommodations.
The firm will communicate with airport and station staff and assign personnel to oversee the athletes’ routes. One staff member will look after a group of three including disabled athletes to assist them such as in getting on and off buses, with the whole process now requiring significantly more human resources than would have been needed before the pandemic.
The government subsidy for coronavirus measures will only cover the cost of one additional staff member attending to the athletes. The municipality gave up on sending their own staff as they did not have a full grasp of the metropolitan area.
“It’s expensive, but we have no option other than using the firms,” the project leader said.
In April, the government said a total of 528 municipalities had registered to welcome athletes representing 184 national Olympic committees for both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Among those registered as host towns or pre-Olympic training camp sites, 105 municipalities have so far given up on plans to host athletes for such camps and cultural exchanges, according to Japan’s Olympic minister Tamayo Marukawa.
Opposition to the games has been growing in Japan, with nearly 60 percent of respondents in a Kyodo News poll conducted in May saying the global sporting event should be canceled amid rising infections in the country and the sluggish inoculation program.
Japan has lagged behind other developed countries in its vaccine rollout.
The town of Kami in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan is preparing to welcome para athletes from Chile as planned. But it has ditched having them travel by plane or bullet train, instead opting for a seven-hour bus ride from Narita airport near Tokyo.
Regular flights between Narita and Sendai, the capital of Miyagi, have been canceled due to the pandemic. The town is also unable to make shinkansen reservations as it is hard to grasp how long immigration clearances, including virus testing, will take.
“It will be a huge burden on the athletes, but it cannot be helped given the circumstances,” said a person in charge of host town preparations.
Midori in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, prepared a hotel to accommodate 17 members of the Hong Kong team for boccia — a sport for profoundly disabled athletes.
But with barrier-free rooms scattered across different floors, the city needed to book all the hotel’s 65 rooms to prevent the visitors from coming into contact with other guests, resulting in the cost doubling to 12 million yen ($109,000).
Unfortunately, the government subsidy only covers the cost of one room per visitor, 17 in this case, said the city’s project leader. The city eventually asked Hong Kong to cancel the visit after finding it difficult to set up a virus countermeasure support system.
There has also been a rash of cancellations among cultural exchanges scheduled across Japan as concerns mount over contact between the visiting teams and local citizens, potentially leading to increased infections.
As a sense of futility increases among municipalities, the original picture of the government’s unprecedented program for the Olympics and Paralympics continues to pale.
“To be honest, I was relieved,” said a person in charge of accommodating the athletes at a municipality in western Japan after the country they were readying to host called to cancel.