WRAPUP 7-Olympics-Opening ceremony director fired over Holocaust joke on Games eve

* Tokyo reports six-month high of 1,979 new COVID-19 cases

* Tokyo 2020 head says looking into how ceremony will be conducted

* Former PM Abe, advocate for Tokyo 2020, won't attend - media

* First Lady Jill Biden arrives in Tokyo with U.S. delegation

TOKYO, July 22 (Reuters) - Tokyo Olympics organizers have fired the opening ceremony director on the eve of the event after reports emerged of a past joke he had made about the Holocaust, while media said former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a strong advocate of the Games, would also not attend.

The latest in a series https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/tokyo-2020-plagued-by-embarrassing-scandals-gaffes-2021-07-22 of embarrassments for the Tokyo organizers comes just days after a well-known musician was forced to step down https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/tokyo-2020-organizers-want-composer-who-apologized-bullying-stay-2021-07-19 as composer for the ceremony after old reports of his bullying and abusive behavior surfaced.

Earlier this year, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee resigned after making sexist remarks, and the Tokyo Olympics creative head followed after he made derogatory comments about a popular Japanese female entertainer.

Tokyo Games organizers fired Kentaro Kobayashi on Thursday over a joke he made about the Holocaust as part of a comedy act in the 1990s that recently resurfaced in domestic media. "I offer my deep apology for causing trouble and worry for many people concerned as well as Tokyo residents and Japanese people when the opening ceremony is almost upon us," said a somber Seiko Hashimoto, who heads the organizing committee.

Earlier, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, released a statement saying Kobayashi's association with the Olympics would "insult the memory" of the 6 million Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.

Kobayashi apologized for his past comments in a statement.

"PR DISASTER"

Former PM Abe, who famously dressed up as the titular plumber from video game Super Mario at the Rio Games to represent Japan, played an outsized role in attracting the Olympics to Tokyo.

At the time of the bid, Abe and his supporters hoped the Olympics would parallel the 1964 Tokyo Games heralding the nation's revival after decades of economic stagnation and also mark its recovery from a massive earthquake and nuclear disaster in 2011.

But the spectacle of last-minute personnel changes, the resurfacing of old abusive comments and the looming presence of the pandemic threatened to turn it into a "PR disaster," said Bob Pickard, a veteran PR executive at Signal Leadership Communication.

"Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be a global platform for the launch of a new Japan facing an international future with confidence. Instead, what we see here is the legacy of the old Japan's insular attitudes mired in past prejudices and dated stereotypes," he said.

NHK said Abe decided against attending the opening ceremony after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency and virus restrictions over Tokyo. Abe's office could not immediately be reached on Thursday, a public holiday in Japan.

The opening ceremony on Friday is set to be a subdued https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/tokyo-opening-ceremony-will-be-sobering-show-not-flashy-2021-07-21 affair, with just 950 people - including only around 15 global leaders - set to attend. Spectators have been barred from most Olympic events as COVID-19 cases surge in the capital.

On Thursday, Tokyo reported 1,979 new coronavirus cases in the capital, the highest since January and up by more than 600 cases compared with the same day last week.

First Lady Jill Biden arrived in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon for the Games' opening ceremony, raising expectations she might also use her attendance to discuss vaccines with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Biden, who is set to dine with Suga and his wife later in the day, has been traveling across the United States urging more people to get inoculated.

Only a third of Japanese have had at least one dose of the vaccine, fueling public concerns that the Olympics could become a super-spreader event.

"This kind of stuff keeps happening, Tokyo residents are really sick of it," said 64-year-old retiree Shio Watanabe on Thursday after news of further personnel changes.

In a recent poll, 68% of respondents expressed doubt about the ability of Olympic organizers to control coronavirus infections, with 55% saying they opposed the Games going ahead.

Already 87 Olympic-related personnel, including athletes, have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the U.S. gymnastics team to relocate to a hotel.

Olympics competition has already begun, with the Japanese women's softball team getting the hosts off to a winning start on Wednesday.

Between matches in rural Fukushima, which was devastated by the 2011 nuclear disaster, softball players were on the lookout for a brown bear which had been spotted this week.

"I'm kind of disappointed I didn't get to see it," U.S. pitcher Monica Abbott said. (Reporting by Mari Saito, Daniel Leussink, Paresh Dave, Tim Kelly, David Dolan, Ju-min Park and Joseph Campbell; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Hugh Lawson)

07/22/2021 8:30

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