New Zealand to skip Paralympic opening ceremony over virus fears

Tokyo (AFP) –


New Zealand's Paralympic team said it will not attend Tuesday's opening ceremony in Tokyo over coronavirus safety fears, as infections surge in the Japanese capital.

Organisers have reported 161 Covid-19 cases linked to the Paralympics so far, mostly among staff and contractors living in Japan but also including six athletes.

Paralympics New Zealand said its athletes would not take part in the opening ceremony, where two flagbearers usually lead teammates into the Olympic Stadium.

"Our team will not be attending as we continue our commitment to our Covid-19 Operating Principles and Guidelines, aimed at keeping our team as safe as possible," it said in a statement.

Instead of appointing flagbearers, two athletes will be given symbolic "leadership roles".

Throughout the pandemic, New Zealand has pursued a "Covid zero" elimination strategy, resulting in just 26 deaths in a population of five million.

But a national lockdown is currently in place to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, after a virus cluster broke a six-month run of no local cases.

New Zealand is the only one of the 162 Paralympic delegations that has confirmed it will skip the evening ceremony, International Paralympic Committee spokesman Craig Spence told reporters on Tuesday.

"We've got to respect the decision," he said, adding that team chief Fiona Allan had told him that despite strict virus countermeasures, they wanted to be "super safe".

There are 32 Paralympians on the New Zealand team, according to Tokyo 2020.

Some other countries and territories have reduced the number of representatives at the ceremony for various reasons including Covid-19 and heat concerns, Spence said.

"We appreciate that the march is going to be a little shorter, there's going to be less athletes compared to normal Games.

"That's a shame, but we respect the decision and actually, it probably speeds up the ceremony."

Japan's virus situation has worsened dramatically in the weeks since the July 23 Olympic opening ceremony, with the country recording more than 25,000 daily infections several times in the past week.