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Japan DPM says Olympic Games' 40-year 'curse' strikes again

Japan's straight-talking DPM brings up unsavoury incidents in 1940 and 1980, as doubts continue to grow over Tokyo 2020

First, the cancellation in 1940. Then, the mass boycott in Moscow in 1980.

Forty years on, the upcoming Tokyo Games are the "cursed Olympics" once again, Japan's finance minister Taro Aso said, in remarks that could stir controversy at a time when his government is scrambling to quash speculation that the coronavirus pandemic could derail the world's biggest sporting event this year.

"It's a problem that's happened every 40 years - it's the cursed Olympics - and that's a fact," Aso, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said in parliament on Wednesday.

Japan had won the bid to host the Summer and Winter Olympics in 1940 - in Tokyo and Sapporo, respectively - but both Games were cancelled due to World War II.

A close ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a former premier himself, Aso is known for his staying power despite his penchant for gaffes that have insulted people, including doctors, women and Alzheimer's patients, over the decades.

The scale of the spreading coronavirus, which has infected more than 200,000 people and killed almost 10,000 across the world, has forced the postponement of numerous sporting events including football's European Championship. It also raised concerns whether the July 24-Aug 9 Olympics will go ahead as planned.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government have insisted the Games will go ahead and have publicly rejected any talk of rescheduling.

Yesterday, Tokyo 2020 organisers received the Olympic flame in a scaled-down handover ceremony in Greece.

In a brief ceremony in front of empty stands inside Athen's vast 50,000-capacity Panathenaic stadium, site of the first modern Games in 1896, the torch was received by Tokyo Games representative Naoko Imoto, a former swimmer.

It will arrive in Japan today and kick off a 121-day domestic relay on March 26, as calls for the Games to be rescheduled get louder by the day.

Former Australia chef de mission and Olympic rowing champion Nick Green was among the latest to cast doubt on the Tokyo Games, saying it would be "very difficult" to hold the event in July as the world grapples with the pandemic.

Green, who led Australia's delegation to the 2012 London Olympics, said the widespread bans on mass gatherings by governments over the past two weeks had changed his mind about the chances of Tokyo going ahead.

"A couple of weeks ago, I was as confident as everyone else, saying the Olympics would go ahead, no problem," Green told Fairfax media.

UNCERTAIN

"Only the world wars have stopped the Olympics from proceeding, aside from a few boycotts here and there.

"I'm pretty robust about it but I don't have the same robustness in my thinking now. I actually can't see how the Games can go ahead, to be frank."

Green, 52, was a member of Australia's celebrated "Oarsome Foursome" that won back-to-back golds in the coxless four at Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta four years later.

"My initial instinct was, this will be managed and it will be business as usual pretty quickly," he said.

"But now the information that's being presented ... makes it clear it would be very, very difficult for an event like the Olympics to occur, considering every other single event globally on mass gatherings of people have been either cancelled or suspended indefinitely."

He added that the very nature of an Olympics, which herds thousands of athletes into a high-security Games village for their accommodation and meals, would be a health risk.

"In today's environment, that's probably the worst thing... having 10,500 athletes in one location at the one time," he said.

Britain's retired four-time rowing Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent called for decisive action.

"On a global front, we have other priorities and I think the Olympics should at the very least be saying we should postpone or indeed just cancel at this stage and we'll talk about postponement later on," he told the BBC.

But others, such as Australian Olympic Committee chief Matt Carroll, said his organisation was doing everything possible to "fulfil the dreams of Australian athletes in incredibly difficult circumstances", after a phone conference with IOC president Thomas Bach. - REUTERS, AFP

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