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As Japan loses training camps, Olympics buzz fades

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Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Japanese city of Kamo spent 70 million yen ($640,000) on horizontal bars, gymnastic mats and other upgrades to training facilities for 42 Russian gymnasts and coaches who now won’t be coming, write Tetsushi Kajimoto and Daniel Leussink.

The team scrapped plans for pre-Olympics training in Japan because of the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, local officials said. Officials in the northwestern city of 25,000 say they regret the lost opportunity to host the team, even more than the money spent.

The Games, now less than eight weeks away after being delayed by a year, have been upended by COVID-19. Foreign spectators will not be allowed, and more than 100 municipalities have cancelled plans to host overseas teams.

"Local kids who could be future star gymnasts were disappointed to miss the opportunity to meet the Russian gymnasts," Kamo official Hirokazu Suzuki told Reuters.

Although there is little Olympic buzz in host city Tokyo, which is under a state of emergency because of the pandemic, in smaller places like Kamo, which had been planning the camp since 2019, the disappointment is perhaps more palpable.

Most of the cancellations so far have been in the 500 or so municipalities involved in the Olympics "host town" programme, in which foreign teams base their pre-Games training in Japanese facilities.

In some cases, such as Australia's judo team, the teams pulled out over safety concerns. In others, such as a delegation from Cuba set to stay in Higashimatsuyama city north of Tokyo, the municipalities decided not to host.

Organisers say the Games will be held safely. Several opinion polls have shown most Japanese people want the event to be cancelled or postponed again.

The national government earmarked 13 billion yen for municipalities to host training camps while imposing coronavirus measures, officials said.

Municipalities apart from Tokyo were expected to see a boost of about $110 billion through 2030 from the Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said in a March 2017 estimate.

"Training camps will give a huge impulse to the economies of towns and cities where they are held, but that is being lost," said Katsuhiro Miyamoto, an emeritus professor of economics at Kansai University who studies the economic impact of the Olympics.

Officials in Narita, east of Tokyo, were caught by surprise when the United States' track and field team informed them it had decided to pull out of planned a training camp.

About 120 athletes and staff, including star sprinter Justin Gatlin, were set to come for the camp, said Kentaro Abe, a municipal official in charge of host town projects.

Narita's sports relationship with the United States started in 2015, when it hosted the U.S. training camp before the world athletics championships in Beijing.

"It doesn't mean that our efforts to promote sport exchange between Japan and the United States came to nothing," Abe told Reuters, adding that city would look to continue the relationship.

In the central city of Toyota, home to the carmaker and Olympic sponsor Toyota Motor Corp, Canadian swimmers and coaches pulled out of pre-Olympics training scheduled to be held over about three weeks in July.

Such cancellations could add to the pain for towns and regions that are already smarting from a drop-off in tourism.

At her hotel in western Izumisano city, Eriko Tsujino worries she could lose about 60 bookings from Mongolian and Ugandan national teams if the athletes ditch plans to train in Japan.

"If they were to cancel at the last minute, it would cause a huge loss," she told Reuters, saying the bookings had still not been confirmed because of the state of emergency.

After the Russians cancelled their camp in Kamo, officials there decided at the last minute to host a much smaller Portuguese delegation of one female artistic gymnast and two accompanying staff, Suzuki said.

But the city also sought to keep friendly relations with the Russian gymnasts, asking kids and other locals to show them support with making video messages and letters.

($1 = 109.8100 yen)

Japan

As unpredictable Games looms, Japan’s sponsors struggle to adapt

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With less than two months left until the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan’s Asahi Breweries still doesn’t know whether fans will be allowed into stadiums to buy its beer, write Maki Shiraki and Eimi Yamamitsu.

Japan has scaled back its Olympic plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a slow vaccine roll-out. Now, foreign spectators won't be allowed in the country and organisers have yet to decide how many domestic spectators, if any, can attend.

More than 60 Japanese companies together paid a record of more than $3 billion to sponsor the Tokyo Games, an event most Japanese now want cancelled or delayed again. Sponsors paid another $200 million to extend contracts after the Games were delayed last year.

Many sponsors are uncertain how to proceed with advertising campaigns or marketing events, according to 12 officials and sources at companies directly involved in sponsorship.

Asahi has the exclusive rights to sell beer, wine and non-alcoholic beer at the stadiums. But it won’t know more until there is a decision about domestic spectators, a spokesman said. That is expected to happen around June 20, toward the end of the current state of emergency in Tokyo.

Even if spectators are allowed, the Tokyo government has no plans to allow alcohol at its public viewing sites outside venues, a representative said.

Asahi hasn't made major marketing changes yet, the spokesman said. In May it started selling its "Super Dry" beer with a new Tokyo 2020 design, as planned.

From the start, Japan seized on the Olympics as a rare marketing opportunity: Tokyo's bid touted "omotenashi" - exquisite hospitality.

But sponsors have grown frustrated with what they see as slow decision-making and have complained to organisers, according to one of the sources, an employee of a sponsor company.

"There are so many different scenarios that we can't prepare," said the source, who like most of the people interviewed at sponsors declined to be identified because the information isn't public.

Companies have vented to organisers, while lower-tier sponsors complain their concerns aren't being heeded, the source said.

Sponsors are divided into four categories, with global sponsors, who usually have multi-year deals, at the top. The other three tiers are companies whose contracts are solely for the Tokyo Games.

In response to Reuters questions about sponsors' facing difficulty because of the delayed decision on spectators, the Tokyo organising committee said it was working closely with partners and all stakeholders.

It also said the committee was still talking with relevant parties about how to handle spectators, and was considering factors such as effectiveness, feasibility and cost.

About 60% of Japanese favour cancelling or delaying the event, a recent poll showed. Japan’s government, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organisers have said the Games will go ahead.

LOST OPPORTUNITY

For global sponsor Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), the Games were a chance to showcase its latest technology. It had planned to roll out about 3,700 vehicles, including 500 Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell sedans, to shuttle athletes and VIPs among venues.

It also planned to use self-driving pods to carry athletes around the Olympic village.

Such vehicles will still be used, but on a much smaller scale - a "far cry from what we had hoped and envisioned," a Toyota source said. A full-scale Olympics, the source said, would have been a "grand moment for electric cars".

A Toyota spokeswoman declined to comment on whether there were any changes to its marketing.

Wireless carrier NTT Docomo Inc had considered campaigns to demonstrate 5G technology, but the company is waiting to see what organisers decide about domestic spectators, a representative said.

Travel agencies JTB Corp and Tobu Top Tours Co launched Games-related packages in mid-May, but their websites indicate those could be cancelled.

Tobu Top Tours "foresaw that situations would change by the minute," but is selling its packages as planned, a spokesman said. The travel agency and JTB said they would refund customers if no spectators are allowed or the Games get cancelled.

Olympic sponsors had planned to offer Japan's top CEOs itineraries that included welcome parties with celebrities and famous athletes, private cars and lounges, the employee at the sponsor company said.

Some companies have now reduced those plans to Games tickets paired with hotel stays or gifts, the person said.

"There's a much more direct and immediate impact, obviously, on local advertisers, local participants and local businesses because of that lack of tourists and attendees," said Christie Nordhielm, an associate teaching professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

REPUTATION RISK

Some domestic firms, worried about opposition to the Games, have called off plans for commercials featuring Olympic athletes or supporting Japanese national teams, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter, and the employee at the sponsor, who was briefed on the issue.

"I'm worried that by airing Olympic ads, it could be negative for the company," said a source at a domestic sponsor. "At this point, no amount of publicity we could get would make up for what we paid."

International advertisers still want to focus on Japan because of the Olympics, said Peter Grasse, founding producer of Mr+Positive, a Tokyo-based advertising production company.

But their message has shifted away from the standard images of Olympic triumph.

"I don't think people have written those triumphant scripts," Grasse said. "It's a much more kind of muted respect for humanity."

Some top-tier global sponsors, whose contracts run until 2024, are scaling down Tokyo promotions and deferring budgets for Beijing in 2022 or Paris in 2024, said a second person with direct knowledge of the matter, and the employee of the sponsor company who was briefed on the issue.

But domestic sponsors don't have another Olympics.

"That's why we can't simply quit," said the source at the domestic sponsor. "Even if the marketing is ineffective."

($1 = 109.4000 yen)

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EU to add Japan to safe travel list, leave UK off for now

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The European Union is set to add Japan to its small list of "safe" countries from which it will allow non-essential travel, but will hold off opening the door to British tourists for now, EU sources said on Tuesday (1 June), writes Philip Blenkinsop.

Ambassadors from the EU's 27 countries are expected to approve adding Japan at a meeting on Wednesday, while Britain will be left off because of a rise in COVID-19 cases due to an infectious coronavirus variant first identified in India.

Under current restrictions, people from only seven countries, including Australia, Israel and Singapore, can enter the EU on holiday, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

Individual EU countries can still choose to demand a negative COVID-19 test or a period of quarantine.

The EU last month eased criteria for adding new countries to the list, by changing to 75 from 25 the maximum number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the previous 14 days. The trend should also be stable or decreasing, with variants of concern taken into account.

EU health experts considered both Japan and Britain at a meeting on Monday, but representatives from a number of countries voiced opposition to adding Britain now.

Cases of the Indian variant doubled last week and the government has said it is too early to say whether Britain can fully drop COVID-19 restrictions on 21 June.

Depending on the course of the variant, Britain could still enter the safe travel list on 14 June, when a larger number of countries are expected to be considered, EU sources said.

The list is designed to ensure consistency across the bloc, although that has been lacking.

France and Germany have imposed quarantines on UK visitors and Austria banned British tourists, while Portugal and Spain have started welcoming them.

Britain requires all EU visitors, except those from Portugal, to undergo quarantine.

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Japan considers asking Olympic fans for negative COVID tests, vaccinations - media

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Japan is considering requiring fans attending the Tokyo Olympics to show negative COVID-19 test results or vaccination records, the Yomiuri newspaper reported on Monday (31 May), as a new poll showed public opposition to the Games remained strong, writes Eimi Yamamitsu.

Japan extended on Friday (28 May) a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas to 20 June, and with the opening of the Games less than two months away, public confidence has been shaken by a fourth wave of coronavirus infections and a slow vaccination rollout.

Foreign spectators have already been banned and organisers are expected to make a decision next month on whether Japanese fans will be able to attend the Games, set to run between 23 July and 8 August, and under what conditions.

In addition to other measures like banning loud cheering and high-fives, the Yomiuri said the government was considering whether spectators should be required to show a negative test result taken within a week of attending an Olympic event.

The government's top spokesman Katsunobu Kato told reporters on Monday he was unaware of any decision on the issue.

"In order to make the Games a success it's necessary to take into account the feelings of the people," Kato said, adding that organisers were preparing to ensure measures were in place to stage the event safely.

The Tokyo Olympics organising committee did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the newspaper report.

But Toshiaki Endo, vice president of the committee, told Reuters some spectators could be allowed into venues, although he personally preferred a total ban in order to reassure the public amid widespread opposition to the Games.

The Yomiuri report provoked thousands of posts on social media criticising the country's continued push to host the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic.

The term "negative test certificate" was trending on Twitter in Japan, garnering over 26,000 tweets by Monday afternoon.

"If you can't eat, cheer, or do high-fives, what's the point in paying for a ticket and an expensive test?" asked a Twitter user, while others questioned the accuracy of such tests.

In a poll published by the Nikkei paper on Monday, over 60% of respondents were in favour of canceling or delaying the Games, a result in line with previous polls by other media outlets.

The Games have already been postponed once due to the pandemic but the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee have said the event will go ahead under strict COVID-safe rules.

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