Olympics-Support for Japan's PM Suga slides as COVID casts shadow over Tokyo Games

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FILE PHOTO: Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference on Japan's response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo
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By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) -Millions of Japanese watched the Olympics opening ceremony and many are cheering on their athletes, but the shadow of COVID-19 is so far preventing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga from getting a boost in his soggy support ahead of an election this year.

Voter support for Suga slid nine points to 34%, its lowest since he took office last September, a July 23-25 Nikkei business daily survey showed on Monday. The Games, postponed last year by the pandemic, opened on Friday.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the country's rollout of coronavirus vaccinations was not going well.

The programme has been hampered by a slow start and supply snarls, and less than a quarter are fully vaccinated.

Suga's dream scenario had been to contain the virus outbreak, preside over a successful Games and call a general election. That was upended after a surge in COVID-19 infections led to a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo and forced Olympic organisers to ban spectators from almost all venues.

Tokyo reported 1,429 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, almost double the number on the same day a week earlier.

Japan has had some cheering news from the Games, winning six gold medals - including a historic two in judo by Uta Abe and her brother Hifumi on Sunday.

Yuto Horigome won the men's street skateboarding on Sunday, the first Olympic gold medal for the sport. Further success came from 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya, who won gold in the women's street skateboarding on Monday to become Japan's youngest-ever gold medal winner.

Nishiya's win along with a bronze for compatriot Funa Nakayama, 16, caused Twitter to light up with congratulations.

Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services, said the opening ceremony was watched by more than 70 million people in Japan, making it the most watched event in the last decade.

Organisers were keeping a wary eye on tropical storm Nepartak, which was heading toward Japan's east coast and forecast to pass to the north of Tokyo.

They said there was currently no plan to reschedule further events. Tuesday's rowing programme was disrupted, with races rescheduled for later in the week. Monday's rowing events were moved to Sunday in anticipation of the storm.

WORRIES ABOUT CONTAGION

Many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the global sporting event will add to the surge in infections, and 31% in the Nikkei survey said the Games should be cancelled or postponed again.

Some 56% said Japan's border steps for incoming Olympics athletes and officials were "inappropriate", the Nikkei survey showed. The Games are being held under tight quarantine rules to prevent the spread of infections, but a number of cases have emerged involving athletes and others.

Olympics organisers reported 16 new Games-related COVID-19 cases on Monday, including three athletes, bringing the total since July 1 to 148.

The Dutch rowing team's performance director said the team had agreed to separate itself from other competitors after one of its athletes, a coach and a staff member all tested positive for COVID-19.

A strict "playbook" setting out rules to avoid contagion mandates frequent testing for the virus, restricted movements and wearing masks by athletes and others in most situations.

The International Olympic Committee said on Sunday, however, that athletes can briefly take off their masks on the podium for 30 seconds for a photo opportunity, as several did after their wins.

Japanese residents have been encouraged to watch the Games on TV but fans assembled at the open air triathlon route on the island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, on Monday in defiance of Olympic staff carrying signs asking them not to gather.

Commenting on his soggy support, Suga told monthly magazine Hanada; "I am confident what I am doing is not mistaken. That will not waver," Kyodo reported.

Independent analyst Atsuo Ito said public admiration for Olympic athletes was unlikely to translate into higher ratings for Suga, which will probably depend on trends in infections.

"Even if people applaud the athletes' performances, that will not link to Suga's support rate," Ito said.

Suga's term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president expires in September and an election for parliament's powerful lower house must be held by November.

Suga came in fifth in the Nikkei's survey of preferred next prime ministers, with just 5% backing him.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, topped the list but his rating slipped four points to 19%, virtually tied with former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba.

(Additional reporting by Makiko Yamazaki, Karolos Grohmann and Sam Nussey; Editing by Michael Perry and Ed Osmond)

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