TOKYO (Reuters) – A plane carrying the Olympic torch from Greece will arrive on Friday on Japan’s northwestern coast ravaged by a 2011 tsunami, but the welcome ceremony will have no spectators, amid worries that the Games could be cancelled over a coronavirus pandemic.
Olympics – Olympic Flame Handover Ceremony – Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece – March 19, 2020 An athlete carries the olympic torch during the olympic flame handover ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The ceremony is being held behind closed doors as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues Aris Messinis/Pool via REUTERS
The Olympic flame will arrive at Matushima air base and will tour the Tohoku region hit by the tsunami and earthquake, in what the organizers call a “recovery flame” tour until the official kick-off ceremony in Fukushima on March 26.
Organisers have repeatedly said the Games, set to run from July 24 to Aug. 9, will go ahead, but as the rapid spread of the virus brings the sports world to a virtual standstill, fears are growing that the Olympics may be postponed or cancelled.
Japan is grappling with pressure to avoid a health crisis among 600,000 expected overseas spectators and athletes at an event that could see $3 billion in sponsorships and at least $12 billion spent on preparations evaporate.
The plane with the torch will arrive nearly empty after the Tokyo 2020 organising committee decided not to send a high-level delegation that was originally to have included its chief, Yoshiro Mori, and Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto.
Organisers have urged the public not to crowd the relay route, cancelled many events along the way and have restricted public access to others. Runners and staff will have their temperature and health monitored, the organisers said.
The torch relay in Greece was cancelled to avoid drawing crowds.
The respiratory disease, which emerged in China late last year, has killed about 9,000 people worldwide and infected nearly 200,000.
Some athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said the International Olympic Committee’s decision to go ahead was putting their health at risk when entire countries have shut down to curb the virus.
The relay is due to pass many of Japan’s most famous landmarks over a 121-day journey, including Mount Fuji, Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Kumamoto Castle.
Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Clarence Fernandez