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Selling Olympics to Japanese public in midst of Covid pandemic has been 'struggle,' Suga says

“What worried me the most was that public opinion was so divided,” Japan's prime minister said in an exclusive NBC News interview.

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga admitted it has been a struggle to sell the Tokyo Olympics to the people in his country, many of whom are fearful that the influx of athletes from around the world will fuel the Covid-19 crisis.

But in an exclusive interview with NBC News, he insisted the Summer Olympics would open as planned Friday and be a success in the end.

“I think that canceling the Games is very easy to do,” Suga told NBC's Keir Simmons earlier this week when asked if he ever considered pulling the plug on the sporting event that has already been delayed a year by the pandemic and that polls continue to show many Japanese oppose. “What worried me the most was that public opinion was so divided.”

“But Japan made the bid and was awarded to be the host country,” he said. “And as the nation hosting the Games, I believe we must fulfill our obligation to the rest of the world.”

Recent polls, including one published this week by The Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper, have suggested that as much as 70 percent of the Japanese public wants the Games canceled or postponed amid a surge in Covid cases in the country.

While infections and death rates are low in Japan compared to the United States, Suga declared a state of emergency earlier this month as the number of new Covid cases began to rise. And on July 8, the organizers announced that the Games would take place without spectators amid fears that the influx of athletes, journalists and other visitors would put Japanese people at risk.

“Over 4 billion people across the world will be watching these Olympic Games,” Suga tells Simmons in Tokyo. “In that context, overcoming the hardship of the coronavirus and to be able to hold the Games, I think there is real value in that.” NBC News

Despite repeated assurances from Suga and other top Japanese officials that the Olympics would be "safe and secure," already some 80 people involved in the Games — including a half-dozen athletes — have tested positive for Covid.

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Staging the world’s biggest athletic competition while in the midst of the Covid crisis is “difficult,” he agreed, but said the payoff for Japan will be huge in the end.

“As I mentioned before, over 4 billion people across the world will be watching these Olympic Games,” Suga said. “In that context, overcoming the hardship of the coronavirus and to be able to hold the Games, I think there is real value in that.”

(NBCUniversal, NBC News' parent company, paid $7.5 billion to extend its U.S. Olympics media rights until 2032. NBCUniversal is the International Olympic Committee's largest single source of income.)

Suga expressed delight that first lady Jill Biden was coming to the Games.

"For Japan, our only true ally is America," he said. "In that sense, in terms of the impact, I am incredibly pleased to have the first lady come to Japan and want to welcome her warmly."

Suga spoke as Japan's vaccination program continues at a slow pace. Just 22.4 percent of the people here are fully vaccinated, according to the latest statistics. It has been able to keep the death and disease toll down by keeping infected people out of the country, and by insisting on masks and social distancing, and enforcing strict quarantines of people who test positive.

The 72-year-old prime minister, the son of a strawberry farmer, grew nostalgic as he reminisced about watching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

“I was a high school student,” he said. “At the time, I was moved by the achievement of Japan's volleyball, gymnastics and marathon athletes during the first Tokyo Olympics. The impact was so great that those memories from 50 years ago still come flooding back to me.”

When Suga was pressed to predict whether Japan will win more medals than the U.S., he chuckled and said, “I hadn't thought about that.”

But ever the gracious host, the prime minister gave a diplomatic answer.

“We are the hosting country and the Japanese people are quite modest,” Suga said. “Therefore, we want to share the medals with everyone.”

Corky Siemaszko reported from Tokyo, and Laura Saravia reported from London.

Laura Saravia contributed.