Coronavirus forces Japan into a decision on Olympic torch relay format

Passengers wearing protective face masks, following an outbreak of the coronavirus, are seen near a campaign banner for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at New Chitose Airport in Chitose, Hokkaido, northern Japan February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato
FILE PHOTO: Summer sunshine is seen through Olympic rings displayed at Nihonbashi district in Tokyo, Japan August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kat

Tokyo 2020 Olympics organisers said on Friday they will make a call next week on how they plan to hold the ceremonial torch relay amid growing worries the coronavirus could scale back or even cancel scheduled events at the Games.

The chief executive of the committee, Toshiro Muto, has said it would consider cutting back the relay to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but no details have yet been made public.

“As for the torch relay, as CEO Muto said, we want to announce to you the basic policy, the big policy, next week,” organising committee spokesman Masa Takaya said at a technical briefing on the relay.

Takaya reiterated the organisers’ policy of carefully considering whether it was necessary to hold every event related to Tokyo 2020 separately. He added that if the event goes ahead, the committee would implement measures to limit the spread of the virus.

The torch will be lit in Olympia, home of the ancient Greek Games on March 12 before a seven-day relay in Greece.

Japan’s leg of the relay will formally begin in Fukushima, the site of a nuclear disaster caused by an earthquake in 2011, on March 26 and will then proceed to all Japan’s 47 prefectures ahead of the opening ceremony on July 24.

Public broadcaster NHK has said that the organising committee is considering scaling back the starting ceremony in Fukushima from about 3,000 attendees to under 1,000.

It could also reduce the number of students welcoming the torch from Greece at a ceremony on March 20, said NHK.

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.

Japan has moved to quell fears that the Olympics might be called off after a member of the International Olympic Committee said the Games would more likely be cancelled than postponed or moved if the virus forced any change in the schedule.

The organisers got a boost from IOC president Thomas Bach late on Thursday after he told Japanese media the body was “fully committed” to holding the Olympics on schedule.

Angry Japanese parents joined bewildered teachers and businesses in a rush to find new ways to live and work for a month after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s shock call for all schools to close in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.