TOKYO – The Olympic Flame arrived in Japan on Friday, where Tokyo organizers held a scaled-down ceremony due to fears over the global coronavirus pandemic.
The flame for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics arrived at a military base in the north-eastern city of Higashi-Matsushima from Greece, six days before the start of a toned-down torch relay in Fukushima prefecture on March 26, the site of Japan’s worst nuclear disaster.
In Higashi-Matsushima, which was devastated by a powerful earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in 2011, the ceremony was held without spectators and the organizers decided not to let about 200 local primary students attend the event due to the spread of the coronavirus.
“The flame will encourage and empower local residents who have contributed to the reconstruction of their region, by going through the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima as the ‘Flame of Recovery,'” Tokyo organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said, referring to the hardest-hit areas of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear disaster.
The natural disasters left about 18,400 people dead or missing, while tens of thousands are still unable to return home near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station due to radiation contamination.
“I hope that the flame that will be relayed across all regions of the country will shine a light onto a road of hope for many people,” Mori added.
Two three-time gold medallists – judo player Tadahiro Nomura and freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida – lit the ceremony cauldron at the event.
“It is finally starting. Now is a time with many difficulties, but I hope the torch relay will be able to deliver cheer and hope to everyone,” Yoshida said.
The flame arrival comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty over holding the Olympics as scheduled.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said repeatedly that his country will continue to make preparations for the Games as planned.
Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said in an interview with the New York Times that they were “considering different scenarios.”
“But we are contrary to many other sports organizations or professional leagues in that we are four and a half months away from the Games… We are talking about the end of July,” Bach said in the interview published on Thursday.
He also stressed that “cancellation is not on the agenda.”
The IOC has been criticized for pressing on with preparations for the Tokyo Games, which are scheduled to begin July 24, despite the global coronavirus pandemic which has infected more than 240,000 people.
Apart from fears of contracting the virus, athletes and officials believe that lockdowns in some parts of the world and ongoing training in others would lead to unfair competition in what is a career highlight for every athlete.
The IOC admitted that “a solution with the least negative impact for the athletes” was being sought and Bach said Wednesday’s conference call with athletes was “very constructive and gave us a lot of insight.”