The Olympic flame arrived in Japan Friday to a muted reception, what should have been a joyous celebration dramatically scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic that has cast doubt over whether the Tokyo Games can even go ahead.
The flame landed on a special charter flight into Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi province, chosen as part of the “Recovery Olympics” to showcase the region’s revival after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
Former Japanese Olympians Saori Yoshida and Tadahiro Nomura collected the flame from the aircraft and took it to a cauldron in the shape of a cherry blossom on a stage in front of selected guests.
But some 200 local children that were due to welcome the flame were kept away as part of what organisers called the “heartbreaking” decision to pare back events as the world battles the virus that has killed nearly 10,000 people.
After a speech by chief organiser Yoshiro Mori, the former Olympians lit the cauldron with the torch, also designed to represent Japan’s cherished cherry blossom.
“Children had planned to welcome the Olympic flame, but we decided to scale it down, giving priority to their safety,” Mori said.
The actual torch relay begins on March 26, starting from the J-Village sports complex in Fukushima that was commandeered as a base by workers scrambling to contain the fall-out from the nuclear meltdown.
“The Olympic flame relay is the biggest event ahead of the Olympics. It is very important for us to carry it out at any cost,” said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto ahead of the ceremony.
But organisers have been forced to scale back what should have been a key event to raise awareness and excitement ahead of the July 24 opening ceremony.
While spectators are allowed to watch from the roadside, fans have been urged to “avoid forming crowds”, with organisers warning there could be a change of programme in the event of “excessive congestion”.
Daily arrival and departure ceremonies are closed to the public and all torch-bearers will have their temperatures taken before participating in the relay, which is scheduled to visit every part of Japan on a 121-day journey before entering Tokyo.
– ‘Bigger than the Olympics’ –
The virus has already played havoc with the traditional early stages of the torch relay in Greece — the lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia took place without spectators and was watched by a severely reduced delegation from Tokyo.
Organisers were then forced to scrap the Greek leg of the relay after large crowds mobbed Hollywood actor Gerard Butler as he lit a cauldron in the city of Sparta.
With borders shut in Europe — which has become the epicentre of the crisis — Tokyo officials did not travel to collect the torch, with former Olympic swimmer Naoko Imoto representing Japan at the official handover.
As the flame arrived, there are increasing clouds over the Games, with some athletes past and present attacking the International Olympic Committee for insisting there is no need for “drastic” action such as postponement or cancellation.
Japan Olympic Committee member and former Olympic judoka Kaori Yamaguchi was the latest prominent figure to suggest a postponement in a newspaper interview published the day the flame landed.
“It should be postponed under the current situation where athletes are not well prepared,” Yamaguchi, a JOC executive board member, told the Nikkei daily.
As well as wiping out the global sporting calendar, the coronavirus has also put paid to many athletes’ training schedules, leading some to propose a postponement.
The IOC, which will take any decision over the fate of the Games, has encouraged all athletes to train for the Games “as best they can”, stressing it is “fully committed” to holding the event as planned.
Nevertheless, IOC president Thomas Bach has admitted that qualifying is becoming a problem as competitions are scrapped.
He said in an interview with the New York Times published Friday that the IOC was “considering different scenarios” for the Games but stressed that the Olympics were still four and a half months away.