Amid the Covid-19 (coronavirus) scare, the Olympic flame arrived in Japan on Friday. The reception of the flame was scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic that has cast doubt over the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Former Japanese Olympians Saori Yoshida and Tadahiro Nomura collected the flame from the aircraft and took it to a cauldron in the shape of a cherry blossom on a stage in front of selected guests.
The Tokyo 2020 Go, a chartered aircraft carrying the flame, landed at the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force base in Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture on Friday, reports said. An arrival ceremony will be held later in the day to welcome the flame. However, performances by some 200 local students have been cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Olympic Torch relay to start in Fukushima on March 26
The flame will be displayed in three northern prefectures hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami before the start of the torch relay on March 26 from J-Village at Fukushima.
The torch relay will conclude with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, which is scheduled on July 24.
Olympic flame in Japan. Photo: ReutersWhat the Olympic officials said
After a speech by chief organiser Yoshiro Mori, former Olympians lit the cauldron with the torch, also designed to represent Japan's cherished cherry blossom.
"Children had planned to welcome the Olympic flame, but we decided to scale it down, giving priority to their safety," Mori said.
"The Olympic flame relay is the biggest event ahead of the Olympics. It is very important for us to carry it out at any cost," said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto ahead of the ceremony.
How authorities are preparing to keep Covid-19 at bay
The spectators are allowed to watch from the roadside and fans have been urged to "avoid forming crowds", with organisers warning there could be a change of programme in the event of "excessive congestion".
Daily arrival and departure ceremonies are closed to the public and all torch-bearers will have their temperatures taken before participating in the relay, which is scheduled to visit every part of Japan on a 121-day journey before entering Tokyo.
Olympic flame in Japan. Photo: Reuters'Bigger than the Olympics'
The virus has already played havoc with the traditional early stages of the torch relay in Greece -- the lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia took place without spectators and was watched by a severely reduced delegation from Tokyo.
Organisers were then forced to scrap the Greek leg of the relay after large crowds mobbed Hollywood actor Gerard Butler as he lit a cauldron in the city of Sparta.
With borders shut in Europe -- which has become the epicentre of the crisis -- Tokyo officials did not travel to collect the torch, with former Olympic swimmer Naoko Imoto representing Japan at the official handover.
As the flame arrived, there are increasing clouds over the Games, with some athletes past and present attacking the International Olympic Committee for insisting there is no need for "drastic" action such as postponement or cancellation.
Japan Olympic Committee member and former Olympic judoka Kaori Yamaguchi was the latest prominent figure to suggest a postponement in a newspaper interview published the day the flame landed.
"It should be postponed under the current situation where athletes are not well prepared," Yamaguchi, a JOC executive board member, told the Nikkei daily.
As well as wiping out the global sporting calendar, the coronavirus has also put paid to many athletes' training schedules, leading some to propose a postponement.
The IOC, which will take any decision over the fate of the Games, has encouraged all athletes to train for the Games "as best they can", stressing it is "fully committed" to holding the event as planned.
Nevertheless, IOC president Thomas Bach has admitted that qualifying is becoming a problem as competitions are scrapped.
He said in an interview with the New York Times published Friday that the IOC was "considering different scenarios" for the Games but stressed that the Olympics were still four and a half months away.