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.
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.
A six-day torch relay through Greece was canceled last week, with the country largely in lockdown having recorded 418 cases of the virus and five deaths.
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 and have publicly rejected any talk of cancellation or postponement.
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.
The eerie mood during the ceremony, which normally attracts thousands of Athenians and visitors, reflected the problems facing Tokyo 2020, with athletes and national Olympic committees questioning whether the Games should be held this year.
Despite the IOC’s commitment to the Games, several athletes have cast doubt on the quality of competitions in Tokyo, given that thousands cannot train at the moment due to restrictions placed upon them in many countries.
Tokyo Games chief Yoshiro Mori said in a video message he hoped the flame’s arrival would help lift Japan’s spirits.
“Tokyo 2020 commits to be in readiness for the Games as planned...,” Mori said. “The concept of the Tokyo relay is ‘Hope lights our way’. I hope that the light will shine on the hearts of people all over in Japan and that will shake off the dark clouds hanging over the earth.”
The plane carrying the flame will land at JASDF Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi Prefecture on Friday.
The domestic relay will start from Fukushima Prefecture, site of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and will last for 121 days. It is planned to end at the Games’ opening ceremony with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Alex Richardson and Toby Davis