Olympic Weightlifter Vanishes in Japan One Week Before Tokyo Games Begin

Officials in Japan are searching for a Ugandan athlete who has been missing since Friday. Weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko, 20, was among nine Ugandan athletes staying in Izumisano, a city in western Japan, while waiting for the start of the 2020 Summer Olympics on July 23. The situation has raised concerns about the Japanese government's efforts to prevent a coronavirus outbreak during the games.

Ssekitoleko was reported missing around noon on Friday when he did not end in a saliva test sample, reports the Associated Press. Izumisano officials found his room empty. There was no training Friday morning. Ssekitoleko was reportedly last seen in his room early Friday morning. After he could not be located, officials told police, who then started a broader search of the city. There was no 24-hour monitoring at the hotel he was staying at, so it is not known when Ssekitoleko left the hotel.

Julius Ssekitoleko getty images
Julius Ssekitoleko in 2018. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

The Ugandan team has faced scrutiny from Japanese officials before. When they arrived in the country on June 19, one athlete tested positive and was quarantined there. The eight other athletes were allowed to take a bus to Izumisano. A few days later, another member of the team tested positive. People who came in close contact with the athletes were ordered to self-isolate. Both Ugandans had the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The search for Ssekitoleko is ongoing, Katsunobu Kato, the chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, told the New York Times. Kato said there was an "all-out effort" to find the weightlifter. Uganda Weightlifting Federation president Salim Musoke told the Times Ssekitolelo was scheduled to return to Uganda on July 20 because he did not qualify for the Olympics. He last spoke to Ssekitoleko three days before he went missing and was surprised that the athlete could go missing because he believed security would have prevented that.

"Athletes disappearing is not good for the country," Musoke said of Japan. "I am praying that they should get this boy. The government of Japan should get this boy, and then we expel him from the sport."

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The Toyko Olympics organizing committee said it is aware of Ssekitoleko's disappearance. "We understand that Izumisano City has been searching for the person who has gone missing," the committee said in a statement to the Times. "We hope the person will be found very soon."

Japanese officials have been under scrutiny for continuing on with the games, despite an uptick in coronavirus cases. Tokyo reported 1,271 new cases on Friday, after hitting a six-month high of 1,308 new cases on Thursday. No spectators will be allowed for any event and there is a state of emergency in Tokyo during the games.