TOKYO/ATHENS – The Olympic flame will arrive in Japan on Friday but due to exceptional social distancing measures in place, it will embark on a lonely tour of the host country amid growing doubts over whether the Olympics will be held this summer at all.
A delegation led by the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee Chairman Yoshiro Mori and the Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto were scheduled to travel to the flame-giving ceremony in Athens, but the plan was axed as result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Greece has applied a mandatory two-week quarantine to any travellers visiting from abroad, as does Japan with anyone traveling from 38 European countries.
Instead the handover of the torch from the Hellenic Olympic Committee to Tokyo 2020 organizers took place today behind closed doors at the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens.
The event was attended only by the president of the Greek Olympic Committee Spyros Kapralos, the torchbearers and a small Japanese delegation.
Actress Xanthi Georgiou launched the ceremony as Grand Priestess of Olympia and carried the torch.
A small relay between gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias and pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, both European, world and Olympic champions, followed.
After the burning of the cauldron by Stefanidi, it was Kapralos who picked up the torch from Georgiou and passed it to the Japanese representative, swimmer Naoko Imoto, who completed the ritual.
Despite the difficulty produced by the wind, the Olympic fire finally passed from the torch to an oil lamp, the container in which the flame will be transferred to Japan.
“The light of Olympism is a great opportunity to highlight the ties between both countries,” said Kapralos in his speech.
“Hopefully the spirit of the Olympic flame will help us defeat this enemy,” he concluded.
Organizing committee chairman Yoshiro Mori intervened via video, thanking the Greek government and HOC “for holding the event despite the difficulties” and announcing that the Olympic flame will travel Japan for 121 days.
Former Olympic swimmer Naoto Imoko will collect the torch when it arrives, which is under the protection of several Tokyo 2020 officers who travelled to Greece and will hand it over at the Matsushima Air Base (Northeast Japan). A small-scale welcoming ceremony will be held.
After arriving in Japan, the flame will be on show for a week across several Japanese towns that were the most affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, although most events and celebrations have been suspended.
The Olympic torch relay will start on the 26 March in the J-Village, a sports facility in the Fukushima prefecture (northeast), that until recently served as a logistical base to access the rugged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Nadeshiko, world champion of the 2011 women’s soccer team, will kick off the tour but no punters will be cheering her on.
The slogan chosen for the relay is Hope Lights Our Way, a message organizers wanted to take to regions in the country that have been ravaged by catastrophes.
But the route that will cross the 47 prefectures has been tarnished by the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed the Japanese government to take drastic measures to prevent its spread and led to the mass cancellation of cultural and sports events and closing all schools throughout March.
Amid the global health crisis, organizers of Tokyo 2020 have chosen to go ahead with the torch relay regardless, although they have urged citizens not to form crowds as it passes. The presence of attendees has not been entirely banned though.
“We are forced to ask people not to go to the streets en masse to see the Olympic flame,” Muto said last Tuesday at a press conference where virtually all attendees wore face masks.
Organizers also asked the Japanese to refrain from taking to the streets during the relay “if they feel unwell” and advised viewers to maintain “a safe distance” between them.
If people do gather in large groups, the route could be modified, the organizers added.
Those responsible for Tokyo 2020 want to take extreme precautions, given the situation of the coronavirus in Japan, which at the moment seems to be under control.
Around 1,000 infections have been registered in the country.
However, uncertainty over whether the torch will end up lighting the Olympic cauldron in Tokyo Stadium on 24 July prevails as COVID-19 relentlessly spreads across the globe.
Amid mounting pressure from athletes and national federations for the games to be postponed, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers remain defiant and insist the games will be held.