TOKYO – The Olympic torch arrived in Japan on Friday on a chartered flight that landed at the Matsushima Air Base in the northeast of the country, where a scaled-down ceremony was held due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The flame arrived in the Asian country at 9:30 am after a small closed-door handover ceremony at the historic Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece, amid a nationwide alert due to the spread of COVID-19, which has raised questions about whether the Games will be held as scheduled on July 24.
The Boeing 787-3 arrived from the Greek capital more than an hour early.
Judo champion Tadahiro Nomura and wrestler Saori Yoshida, both three-time Olympic gold medalists, received the flame, which was protected from strong wind in a lantern.
Yoshida said she was happy the torch arrived safely and hoped that for those experiencing difficult times due to the coronavirus pandemic, the flame will give them energy and hope.
Yoshida and Nomura handed it to the president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Yoshiro Mori, who had words of encouragement for Europe, which is immersed in a health crisis due to the virus, and said the relay will start in Fukushima and will cover the country.
The athletes then lit a cherry blossom-shaped cauldron in front of a limited group of government and organization representatives, including Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto and Olympic Games Minister Seiko Hashimoto.
A group of schoolboys was scheduled to attend the welcoming ceremony, but their participation was canceled as a precautionary measure.
After the lighting of the cauldron, the Blue Impulse, the aerobatic demonstration team of the Self-Defense Air Forces of Japan, drew the Olympic rings in the sky.
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.
It will then start a 121-day relay, for which the organizing committee has urged citizens not to form crowds as it passes.
The relay will start on March 26 from the J-Village, a sports facility in the Fukushima prefecture (northeast), which, until recently, had served as a logistics base for clean-up efforts after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Tokyo 2020 organizers have warned that the route could be altered for security reasons.
The Olympic flame was lit in the ancient ruins of Olympia in Greece on March 12, also in a closed-door ceremony.
A day later, the Hellenic Olympic Committee decided to suspend the Greek leg of the relay to prevent large gatherings of people amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which is seriously affecting Europe.