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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 28 February 2021

Pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi throws weight behind Tokyo Olympics

Katerina Stefanidi led calls to postpone last year's Games due to pandemic but says she wants to see them go ahead this year even without spectators

Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi has spoken out strongly in favour of going ahead with the Tokyo Games, nearly a year after she led calls to postpone the event over the coronavirus pandemic.

Stefanidi told Japan's Kyodo news agency that it would be better to hold the Olympics without fans than not at all, adding that she thought athletes were overwhelmingly in favour of competing.

A surge in coronavirus cases around the world has renewed doubts over the postponed 2020 Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July. With Tokyo under a state of emergency, polls indicate plunging support in Japan. Meanwhile a London-based forecaster said Monday Japan is only likely to achieve herd immunity to Covid-19 through mass inoculations months after the Games.

"I think if we have to have the Olympics without spectators, I would prefer that than not having the Games at all," Stefanidi, who is a member of World Athletics' Athletes' Commission, was quoted as saying.

Stefanidi had voiced concerns for athletes' safety before the International Olympic Committee took the unprecedented decision to postpone the Games last March.

"The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family's health and public health to train every day?" she tweeted at the time.

The 30-year-old said around 80 per cent of World Athletics athletes polled at that time supported either cancelling or postponing the Olympics.

But she believes 80 per cent would now be in favour of the Games if asked again.

"I think that it's a very different situation than what we had last year, where we didn't really know anything about the virus," she said.

On Friday, Japan's government denied a report in The Times that said officials see cancelling the Olympics as inevitable.

Stefanidi said she would prefer the Games to go be held without spectators - something organisers have floated as a possibility - than be cancelled.

"If we can have the Olympics with some spectators, that will be better of course ... for me the worst-case scenario would be to completely cancel," she said.

Another factor in whether the Games goes ahead or not will be how much of the population receive the vaccine, with Japan trailing most major economies in starting Covid-19 inoculations.

Cancellation of the Olympics would be a blow to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has pledged to have enough shots for the populace by the middle of 2021.

Japan has arranged to buy 314 million doses from Pfizer, Moderna Inc and AstraZeneca Plc, and that would be more than enough for its population of 126 million.

But problems seen in vaccine rollouts elsewhere stir doubt that Japan will get those supplies on time.

"Japan looks to be quite late in the game," Rasmus Bech Hansen, the founder of British research firm Airfinity, told Reuters. "They're dependent on importing many [vaccines] from the US And at the moment, it doesn't seem very likely they will get very large quantities of for instance, the Pfizer vaccine."

Japan is particularly vulnerable because its initial inoculation plan is dependent on Pfizer doses, which are at risk of being taken back by US authorities to fight the pandemic there.

"There simply aren't enough vaccines for all the countries that Pfizer made agreements with," Hansen added.

Hansen said Japan will not reach a 75 per cent inoculation rate, a benchmark for herd immunity, until around October, about two months after the close of the Summer Games, Hansen said.

Updated: January 31, 2021 02:37 PM

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