ATHENS (Reuters) – Tokyo 2020 organizers received the Olympic flame in a scaled-down handover ceremony in the Greek capital on Thursday, amid the coronavirus spread that has cast doubt on the global, multi-billion dollar event.
Olympics – Olympic Flame Handover Ceremony – Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece – March 19, 2020 General view of the olympic flame during the olympic flame handover ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics Aris Messinis/Pool via REUTERS
In a brief ceremony closed to spectators in Athens’ Panathenaic stadium, site of the first modern Games in 1896, the torch was received by Tokyo Games representative Naoko Imoto.
It will arrive in Japan on Friday and kick off a domestic relay on March 26, with the Games set to take place from July 24-Aug. 9.
The scale of the spreading coronavirus, which has infected more than 200,000 people and killed more than 8,700 across the world, has forced the cancellation of numerous sporting events, raising concerns about whether the Olympics will be able to open as planned.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government, however, have insisted the Games will go ahead.
Greece’s Olympic Committee chief Spyros Capralos handed over the lit torch to the Japanese former Olympic swimmer Imoto in front of empty stands inside the vast 50,000-capacity horseshoe-shaped marble stadium.
The flame was then transferred into a small receptacle to travel to Japan aboard a special aircraft named “Tokyo 2020 Go.”
Only a few dozen officials were allowed into the central Athens stadium as the country has imposed strict measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Tokyo Games chief Yoshiro Mori said in a video message he hoped the flame’s arrival would help “shake off the dark clouds hanging over the world.”
The plane will land at JASDF Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi Prefecture on Friday before the start of a domestic relay from Fukushima Prefecture, site of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Alex Richardson and Toby Davis