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Empty stadiums are a real worry ahead of Games

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“There are maybe 20 percent of the number of people who came to see the race last year. Normally, it’s so packed you can barely breathe”

A line of masked spectators raises muffled cheers for elite marathon runners, and a baseball bat’s thud on a ball echoes around a vast, empty stadium: Sport in Tokyo this weekend set the tone for how a coronavirus-hit Olympic Games could play out.

In Tokyo, yesterday’s staging of the annual marathon, which last year saw close to 38 000 amateur participants, was scaled back to just a few hundred professional athletes, with the public strongly discouraged from lining the route.

In past years the event attracted more than 1 million roadside spectators.

“If the Olympics look like this, it’s going to be a sad sight,” said 68-year-old shoemaker Hiroshi Enomoto, one of the fistful of spectators cheering on the runners in the downtown area of Asakusa.

The Olympic marathon itself has been moved to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido because of worries over Tokyo’s scorching summer heat, but Enomoto and others wondered whether this weekend’s crowdless events were a harbinger of things to come.

“There are maybe 20 percent of the number of people who came to see the race last year. Normally, it’s so packed you can barely breathe,” said Enomoto.

Barely 30 minutes after the runners zipped through the neighbourhood’s sun-soaked streets, staffers clad in bright vests removed plastic barriers and cleaning trucks swooped in to pick up trash.

About an hour later, Birhanu Legese from Ethiopia arrived at the finishing line in sight of the Imperial Palace in 2:04:15.

Japan’s Suguru Osako ended fourth in 2:05.29, beating his own national record and securing a spot in the men’s field for the Olympics.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach have said the Games will go ahead.

Bach said his organisation was “fully committed” to the July 24 start, dismissing other options as “speculation”.

Reuters