Crowds gather as Olympic flame arrives in Japan despite virus caution

March 21, 2020

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HIGASHIMATUSHIMA: Three-time Olympic gold medallists Tadahiro Nomura (R) and Saori Yoshida light the torch as Tokyo 2020 Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori looks on during the Olympic Flame Arrival Ceremony at the Matsushima Base on Friday.—AP
HIGASHIMATUSHIMA: Three-time Olympic gold medallists Tadahiro Nomura (R) and Saori Yoshida light the torch as Tokyo 2020 Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori looks on during the Olympic Flame Arrival Ceremony at the Matsushima Base on Friday.—AP

HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA: An Olympic torch event in Japan drew hundreds of spectators on the day of the flame’s arrival on Friday, creating the type of packed gathering the government and Tokyo 2020 organisers have warned against to prevent coronavirus from spreading further.

About 500 people gathered in a jostling crowd to look at the flame and popular comedians taking part in a ceremony in Ishinomaki, 335 km (208 miles) north of Tokyo.

The Greek part of the torch relay began last week, but a day later the remainder was cancelled to avoid attracting crowds.

Earlier in the day, a plane carrying the torch from Greece arrived at Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s Matsushima airbase, which was devastated by a powerful earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

No spectators were present for the arrival ceremony at the base, where officials pledged the Tokyo 2020 Games will proceed despite mounting pressure to halt the world’s biggest sporting event due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“For the first time in 56 years, the Olympic torch is heading to Tokyo and I hope that the Olympic torch will illuminate the path of hope for many people,” Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori said.

Mori of course was referring to Tokyo’s famous 1964 Olympics. Tokyo was also to have been the venue for the 1940 Olympics, which were cancelled by World War II.

“We will work closely with the International Olympic Committee, the Japanese government, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government,” he said, and based on the World Health Organisation’s advice, we will ensure a safe and secure games.”

The flame, carried in a tiny canister from Greece, reached Japan aboard a white aircraft painted with the inscription Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay along its side. The tail section was adorned with the refrain “Hope Lights our Way.

ISHINOMAKI: Spectators attend the unveiling of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic flame at Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park on Friday.—AFP
ISHINOMAKI: Spectators attend the unveiling of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic flame at Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park on Friday.—AFP

The aircraft was welcomed on the tarmac by a small contingent of organizing committee officials. Two of Japan’s most famous Olympians three-time wresting gold medalist Saori Yoshida and three-time judo gold medalist Tadahiro Nomura received the flame for the lighting ceremony.

The two climbed portable stairs and entered the aircraft before emerging holding the cradle-like canister with a flame burning inside. They handed it over at the base of the stairs to Mori, who delivered a brief acceptance speech in a gusting wind.

Yoshida and Nomura then took the torch and ignited a large cauldron on the tarmac of the air base.

Mori referred to the difficult situation” with the virus, and then thanked the IOC and Greek officials that the hand-over ceremony was able to be held” with the Olympics set to open in just over four months.

“We originally planned to have children here to welcome the flame,” said Mori, a former prime minister. “But, prioritising their safety, we’ve decided to do without them. That was an agonising decision ... We will do our utmost in preparing for a safe and secure event.”

Organisers have repeatedly said the Games, due to run from July 24 to August 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.

The respiratory disease, which emerged in China late last year, has killed more than 10,000 people worldwide.

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 arrived nearly empty after the Tokyo 2020 organising committee decided not to send a high-level delegation that was originally to have included Mori and Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto, with former Olympic swimmer Naoko Imoto representing Japan at the official handover.

“This is a tough time. I hope the torch relay will bring people vigour and hope,” Yoshida told the welcome ceremony.

DOUBTS GROW

The flame will travel round the Tohoku region hit by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, in what organisers call a “recovery flame” tour before the official kick-off ceremony in Fukushima on March 26.

Organisers have urged the public not to crowd the relay route, cancelling many events along the way and restricting public access to others. Runners and staff will have their temperatures and health monitored, organisers said.

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.

Japanese Olympic Committee executive board member Kaori Yamaguchi, a former Olympic judoka, was the latest prominent figure to call for a postponement, citing the difficulties faced by athletes.

“It should be postponed under the current situation where athletes are not well prepared,” Yamaguchi told the Nikkei daily.

“By asking them to train under these conditions, the IOC is opening itself up the criticism that it is not putting athletes first,” she added.

Olympics chief Thomas Bach admitted “different scenarios” were under consideration.

“Of course we are considering different scenarios, but we are contrary to many other sports organisations or professional leagues in that we are four-and-a-half months away from the Games,” Bach, the IOC president, told the New York Times. “For us, [postponement] would not be responsible now and it would be premature to start speculation or make a decision at a time when we do not have any recommendation from the task force,” he added.

Bach insisted health considerations were “first and foremost” — and that the decision won’t be driven by financial interest. “What makes this crisis so unique and so difficult to overcome is the uncertainty. Nobody today can tell you what the developments are tomorrow, what they are in one month, not to mention in more than four months,” he said. “Therefore it would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now, which would be based on the speculation about the future developments.”

The torch relay will begin at J-Village, a football training centre in Fukushima that served as an operations base for workers who battled triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the 2011 tsunami.

It is due to pass many of Japan’s most famous landmarks over a 121-day journey to Tokyo’s Olympic stadium, including Mount Fuji, Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Kumamoto Castle.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2020