Olympic flame arrives in Tokyo for no-spectator torch relay

Former Japanese professional tennis player Shuzo Matsuoka receives the Olympics flame to his Olympic torch during the lighting ceremony in Tokyo on July 9, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike with the Olympic flame during the unveiling ceremony in Tokyo on July 9, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - The Olympic flame arrived in Tokyo on Friday (July 9) at a low-key arrival ceremony with the public kept away over virus fears, the day after Japanese officials said spectators will be banned from most Games events.

On a rainy morning exactly two weeks before the July 23 opening ceremony of the biggest sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic began, the flame was carried on stage in a lantern and handed to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

On Wednesday, officials announced that the Olympic torch relay had been scrapped on Tokyo's public roads, as virus concerns continue to plague the Games.

Right up to the opening ceremony on July 23, the torch ceremonies will be streamed online, with authorities urging spectators to watch them "in the comfort of your home".

Only the relay leg in the Ogasawara islands - a remote archipelago some 1,000km south of Tokyo - will go ahead in public as scheduled.

The nationwide torch relay has been fraught with problems since it began in March, with almost half the legs disrupted in some way. The relay was forced off public roads in famous tourist cities such as Kyoto and Hiroshima over fears that crowds of fans could spread the virus.

And it has also met with some public opposition, with a 53-year-old woman arrested on Sunday for squirting liquid from a water pistol towards a runner.

As the final countdown begins, the mood is far from the usual festive Olympic spirit.

Tokyo will be under a virus state of emergency from Sunday (July 11) until Aug 22, putting a further dampener on an already unusual Olympics.

Given the decision, the organisers said on Thursday they would bar spectators from venues in Tokyo and three surrounding areas, where most competition will happen. A handful of events will be held elsewhere in the country with some fans in attendance.

The move disappointed fans and athletes alike, with Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios saying it tipped the scale as he wavered on whether to compete.

"The thought of playing in front of empty stadiums just doesn't sit right with me. It never has," he said on social media, announcing his withdrawal.

But others said they were grateful for the chance to take part, with US swimmer Katie Ledecky saying the Games would still be "a really beautiful thing".

Despite the disruptions, Ms Koike said the flame's passage offered "hope" that she said torchbearers would "carry into the Olympic stadium".

When the cauldron is lit on July 23, only dignitaries and officials will be in the stands at the 68,000-capacity National Stadium in central To

A decision on Paralympic spectators will be taken after the Olympics end.

The move left a sour taste for Natsuko Kamioka, who had tickets to take her son to the men's volleyball quarter-finals. "They've avoided cancelling the Games but they haven't been left with a good outcome. No one is happy," she told AFP.

Olympic "superfan" Kyoko Ishikawa, who has attended every Summer Games in the past three decades, was more sanguine. "It's not getting me down," said Ishikawa, who has become a familiar face at Olympic venues over the years in her traditional Japanese outfit and "hachimaki" headband.

"Now, what I have to do is ask how I can still create an opportunity to connect people around the world through the Olympic Games."

Torchbearers prepare to attend a lighting ceremony after their relay on a public road was cancelled in Tokyo on July 9, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

And French decathlete Kevin Mayer, who won silver at Rio 2016, said the roar of crowds was only one aspect of competition.

"They are taking away part of the joy of sport," he told a press conference. "But we should not forget why we play sports.

"I'm being given the opportunity to express myself in a way not given to everyone, in the biggest competition that exists."

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