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Olympic torch arrives in Japan with little fanfare as coronavirus threatens Games

Olympic cauldron lit ahead of Tokyo Games
The Olympic Flame arrived at Matsushima Air Force Base on Friday afternoon, where the Olympic Cauldron was lit ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games which are scheduled to go forward on July 24 despite the global COVID-19 pandemic.

A plane carrying the Olympic torch from Greece arrived on Friday on Japan’s northwestern coast ravaged by a 2011 tsunami, but the welcome ceremony will have no spectators, amid worries the Games could be canceled over the coronavirus pandemic.

The flame arrived at Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s Matsushima 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.

Coronavirus outbreak: Plane leaves to collect Olympic flame as IOC signals summer Games still on
Coronavirus outbreak: Plane leaves to collect Olympic flame as IOC signals summer Games still on

Organizers 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 canceled.

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

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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 organizing committee decided not to send a high-level delegation that was originally to have included its chief, Yoshiro Mori, and Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto.

Preparing for the possible cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Preparing for the possible cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

The arrival ceremony at the base is scheduled to start later on Friday morning.

Organizers have urged the public not to crowd the relay route, canceled many events along the way and have restricted public access to others. Runners and staff will have their temperature and health monitored, the organizers said.

The torch relay in Greece was canceled to avoid drawing crowds.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Health experts say it’ll take a ‘miracle’ for Olympics to go ahead as planned

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.

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(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Jack Tarrant, Akira Tomoshige, Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Lincoln Feast.)