World Athletics president Sebastian Coe understands critics of the Tokyo Olympics but insists COVID-19 vaccines should allay fears for both athletes and the local population.
Hosts Japan are currently enduring a fourth wave of coronavirus infections and on Friday further expanded a state of emergency from six areas, including Tokyo, to nine, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga repeated his determination to hold the Olympics in just over two months.
Japan has been struggling to slow infections ahead of the games. The three additions are Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, where the Olympic marathon will be held, and Hiroshima and Okayama in western Japan.
A petition was on Friday signed by 350,000 people over nine days calling for the Games to be cancelled.
“I can understand bystanders looking at this and being fearful - but that just reinforces for us the need to make sure people do understand sport actually is good at this,” Coe said.
“I want to reassure the Japanese people that we take this seriously, with a rigorous focus on the COVID protocols. We’ve staged events with crowds in many places in the world... done it successfully and haven’t produced a great spike in numbers.
“We recognise sport does play a really important part in our communities. There are billions of people across the globe that want the Games to take place, the athletes and broadcasters want the Games to take place.”
Coe said the Games would have a different feel with fans not allowed in from abroad, while a decision on Japanese-based spectators has yet to be made.
“Everybody wants stadiums full of noisy, passionate people - but if the Games have to take place without crowds, or certainly with fewer people in stadiums, the athletes, the world of sport, accepts that now,” Coe added.
Additional reporting by Reuters.