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Decision on holding delayed Olympic Games 'could go either way', says Japan minister

TOKYO (Reuters) - The once-delayed Tokyo Olympics may not go ahead this summer as planned as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, a Japanese cabinet minister said on Thursday, saying the host needs to be ready for anything.

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Minister in charge of administrative reform and regulatory reform Taro Kono attends a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, September 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“We need to do the best we can to prepare for the Games at this moment, but it could go either way,” Taro Kono, administrative and regulatory reform minister, said in an interview at the Reuters Next conference.

A global COVID-19 resurgence, including record infection levels in Japan, has raised fresh doubts about the Games, which were postponed by a year in 2020.

The government on Wednesday expanded its state of emergency well beyond the Tokyo region, and new coronavirus infections in the capital exceeded 1,500 on Thursday, according to public broadcaster NHK.

The Japanese public’s appetite for the sporting extravaganza has waned, with 77% of respondents in a survey this week saying it should be cancelled or postponed. But the Games - and the tourism dollars they bring - are a top priority for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Suga and others have said repeatedly the decision whether to go ahead rests with the International Olympic Committee and that their agreement to continue preparations stands.

“Anything is possible, but as the host of the Games we need to do whatever we can, so that when it’s a Go, we can have a good Olympic Games,” Kono said in some of the strongest comments yet from a government minister about uncertainty over the Games.

“The Olympic Committee must be thinking about Plan B, Plan C. But the situation is not easy.”

The U.S.-educated Kono, a former foreign and defence minister open about his ambition to be premier, is known for his outspoken views.

Suga said on Wednesday he had heard nothing to suggest the Games wouldn’t go ahead and than planning was going “full steam ahead.”

Some overseas sports officials remain upbeat about the prospects, such as Team GB Chef de Mission Mark England, who on Wednesday said he was “hugely confident of the Games going ahead in the summer.”

But even if they open as planned on July 23, organisers may have to limit spectator numbers to guard against infections. Japan would also have to ease strict immigration controls that bar most foreigners from entering the country.

Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee President Yoshiro Mori this month said a decision should be made in February or March whether the COVID-19 risks have fallen enough to let spectators attend.

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Reporting by David Dolan, Tim Kelly; Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by John Stonestreet and William Mallard