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The president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday made an embarrassing gaffe by referring to the people of Japan as “Chinese”.
Thomas Bach made the mistake in his first public comments since arriving at Olympic Games host city Tokyo. The Olympics, which many in Japan don’t want to take place because of the Coronavirus pandemic, begin on 23 July.
The German lawyer and former Olympic fencer was in Japan in a bid to reassure the public that the 17-day event would not become a coronavirus super-spreader event, as Tokyo entered its fourth Covid-related state of emergency on Monday.
The new emergency rules – which include an unpopular ban on serving alcohol in bars and restaurants – will stay in place until 22 August, a fortnight after the games are scheduled to finish.
Officials are now asking people to watch the games on television to limit the spread of the virus. Tokyo reported a two-month high of 950 new cases on Saturday. While Japan’s vaccine rollout has picked up speed in recent weeks, only around 17 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
At the start of the meeting with Tokyo 2020 bosses, Mr Bach said: “Our common target is safe and secure games for everybody, for the athletes, for all the delegations, and most importantly also for the Chinese people... Japanese people.”
His slip-up was not repeated by the English-to-Japanese interpreters during the meeting, but the Japanese media picked up on it and there was some backlash on social media, according to reports.
Amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there has been serious doubt over whether the crisis-hit games would go ahead in 2021 after they had already been postponed by a year.
Mr Bach, who was until recently quarantining at his hotel, is likely to hold a meeting with the Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday, and to visit Hiroshima at the end of the week.
He and other senior IOC officials have drawn criticism for insisting the games will open despite rising infections and warnings by medical experts that the arrival of tens of thousands of athletes, sponsors, reporters and officials could trigger a new wave of infections.
Mr Bach is not the only official involved in the games that has come under fire for saying or doing the wrong things.
In May, senior Japanese government adviser Yoichi Takahashi resigned following a backlash over his tweets that had downplayed the severity of the pandemic in Japan.
The Kaetsu University professor had joked that Japan’s outbreak was a “ripple”, adding “so you’re telling me people want to cancel the Olympics for this? lol lol”.
PM Mr Suga, who called the incident “extremely regrettable”, said that Prof Takahashi had apologised for his comments when offering his resignation.
Hiroshi Sasaki, the head creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies, was forced to resign in March after making demeaning comments about a celebrity.
A weekly magazine revealed that he had proposed to his creative team that Naomi Watanabe, a comedian and actor, should be lowered into the Olympic stadium dressed as a pig in an opening ceremony segment he called “Olympig”.
Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo Olympics Committee, came under fire for his sexist remarks. He had said that women talk too much and that meetings with female board directors would “take a lot of time”.
He stepped down and apologised for his “inappropriate statement” in February.
That same month, his successor Seiko Hashimoto – who was present at the meeting with Mr Bach – was criticised for her conduct seven years ago. It followed reports that she had made unwanted advances towards a sportsman during the Sochi Olympics.
The former athlete and former minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, said: “I regret it and think I should be careful.”
The games are being held until 8 August, with the Paralympics to follow from 24 August to 5 September. They will largely be held with no spectators.
Tokyo will be the first city in Asia to hold the summer Olympic Games twice, having also hosted the event in 1964.