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Raging pandemic saps Olympic vibes

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Presidential election, Korea-Japan diplomatic row divert public interest

By Kwak Yeon-soo

The Olympics are usually a time when family, friends and sports fans gather to watch the Games on TV and root for their national team. Although Korea and Japan have equivalent time zones, which is ideal for viewers to keep track of events, people here are less optimistic about this year's Games as they have been, and still are, plagued by several problems, not least the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sports festival opens Friday after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic, but COVID-19 infections in Japan have shown no signs of abating. Tokyo is in a state of emergency and is experiencing its worst COVID-19 surge since January, with daily cases reaching 1,832, Wednesday. More than 75 cases have been linked to the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The situation is no different in Korea.

Seoul and its surrounding areas are under Level 4 social distancing measures, the highest in the government's four-tier system, until July 25; and the tough measures are likely to be extended. Under Level 4, people are not allowed to gather in groups of more than two after 6 p.m.

Earlier in July, an Ipsos Global Adviser poll showed that only 14 percent of Koreans believed that the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics should proceed, while 22 percent of the people in Japan held the same view.

Many expressed concerns about the ability of Japan and the IOC to live up to their commitment to put on a "safe and secure" Olympics.

Lee Joo-hwan, who traveled to Sochi in 2014 and PyeongChang in 2018 to attend the Winter Olympics, said he is not excited at all about the upcoming games.

"It's had zero hype in Korea as far as I can tell compared to previous Olympics. I'm not sure how the organizers are going to hold events without a live audience. Watching games on TV is not going to be fun because I won't be able to feel the crowd's energy," he said.

"I can hardly feel the Olympic vibe because there are so many issues related to COVID-19. I don't recall seeing the Olympic torch relay on TV. Instead, I heard disturbing news about some Olympic athletes testing positive for COVID-19 in Tokyo. I hope the authorities are able to control the situation and Korean athletes stay safe to perform at their best," said Ahn Young-shin, an office worker in his 20s.

Athletes are also expressing concerns about their safety.

After arriving at Narita International Airport, Sunday, pistol shooter Jin Jong-oh told reporters that the COVID-19 testing process was rather unnerving.

"We got our COVID-19 tests with saliva and I felt like we could get infected that way. I thought to myself, 'Do we really need to have the Olympics this way?'" he said.

According to COVID-19 protocols for the Olympics, athletes at the Tokyo Summer Games will not be permitted to shake hands or give hugs during medal ceremonies. As social interactions are banned, they will put their medals around their own necks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, left, and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori pose before their meeting in Tokyo, Tuesday. Yonhap
First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, left, and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori pose before their meeting in Tokyo, Tuesday. Yonhap

However, it is not just COVID-19 that has sapped any excitement over the Olympics.

The attention of the Korean public is also focused on domestic affairs, such as next spring's presidential election as well as the on-going diplomatic row between Korea and Japan over wartime history and trade.

Just eight months ahead of the upcoming election, which will be held in March 2022, 25 presidential hopefuls, including early frontrunners, Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung, former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and ex-Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, have declared their intention to run.

The contenders will go through presidential primaries this fall to become official candidates for the presidential race.

After losing to the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) in the mayoral races in Seoul and Busan in April, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and President Moon Jae-in have been trying to mitigate the fallout from their failure to curtail soaring housing prices and handle the pandemic.

Deep-seated conflicts between Korea and Japan continue to act as a serious stumbling block. On Monday, Cheong Wa Dae confirmed that Moon will not visit Japan during the Olympics, scrapping attempts for a first-ever summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The announcement followed months of diplomatic tension between the two governments over the visit. Koreans were infuriated after a map featured on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee's website in May depicted Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo as Japanese territory.

More recently, the two sides got into a dispute over flags.

The International Organizing Committee had to intervene and ask the Korean delegation to take down banners hung at the athletes' quarters alluding to a Korean naval victory over Japan in the 1500s, while promising to ban Japan from using rising sun flags at Olympic venues.

Remarks made by Hirohisa Soma, the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, describing Moon's efforts to improve Korea-Japan ties as "masturbating" worsened already tense relations between the two nations.

"Soma's comment about President Moon acted as a significant obstacle and the nature of his remarks was unspeakable," first Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun told reporters at Incheon International Airport before departing for Tokyo to attend bilateral and trilateral talks with his Japanese and U.S. counterparts, Tuesday.

According to a poll by R & Search, conducted on 1,095 people aged 18 or over, 65.5 percent of the respondents were in favor of Moon's decision.

Despite all obstacles, the Olympics are on schedule to start in Tokyo, Friday and run until Aug. 8.


Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr


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