ATHENS – Greece’s Hellenic Olympic Committee said Friday it will suspend the rest of the torch relay in that country for this summer’s Tokyo Games, due to concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.
The decision was made a day after the Greek leg of the relay started following a lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia. But the flame will be handed over to Japan in Athens on Thursday as scheduled without the presence of spectators, the committee said.
Tokyo Olympics CEO Toshiro Muto said the halt of the Greek relay will not influence the schedule of the Japanese leg at this time. The Japan relay is set to start on March 26 in Fukushima Prefecture.
“Our policy of holding it according to schedule hasn’t changed,” Muto told reporters at Athens Airport, adding the organizers will closely monitor the status of infections in areas the torch travels through.
“Tokyo 2020 will continue to collaborate closely with all related organizations including the IOC and the Hellenic Olympic Committee,” Tokyo Olympic organizers said in a statement.
“Tokyo 2020 will bring the Olympic flame back to Japan, and in line with the countermeasure policy set by the national government. The IOC and Tokyo 2020 have also reconfirmed today that both parties will continue to stay in close collaboration.”
Greece’s Olympic committee said the torch relay in the southern Peloponnese town of Sparta drew an unexpectedly large crowd, forcing the committee to consult with health authorities and the International Olympic Committee.
The suspension of the Greek leg, scheduled to last for eight days, adds to uncertainties over preparations for the Olympics, due to start on July 24, with the World Health Organization characterizing the global spread of the virus as a “pandemic.”
Tokyo 2020 organizers and the IOC have insisted the Summer Games will be held in the nation’s capital as scheduled. But Tokyo has experienced cancellations and postponements of numerous sports events, including Olympic qualifiers, and reduced the scale of some test events.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday suggested postponing the Tokyo Games for a year, which led Japanese organizers and government officials to reiterate that the country will go ahead with the games as planned.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday cancellation or holding the Olympics and Paralympics behind closed doors is “impossible.”
The torch relay organizers in Greece had drawn several measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including holding the lighting ceremony in the presence of a limited number of delegations, officials and journalists.
Tokyo Olympic organizers have also considered countermeasures during the domestic torch relay leg.
The departure ceremony on March 26 may possibly be held without spectators, while the organizers may request that people refrain from watching the relay from the roadside depending on the status of infections.
The flame is set to arrive in Japan on March 20 at the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s Matsushima base in Miyagi Prefecture aboard a chartered plane.
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