SENDAI • Tens of thousands of people flocked to a cauldron lit by the Olympic flame in north-eastern Japan over the weekend despite concerns over the global coronavirus pandemic.
The torch arrived in Japan to a scaled-down welcome ceremony last Friday with doubts continuing to grow over whether the Tokyo Games will go ahead on schedule on July 24.
The Covid-19 crisis has already shredded the global sports calendar, with all major leagues and tournaments, including qualification events for the Olympics, either postponed or cancelled.
The virus has infected over 308,000 people worldwide and killed more than 13,000.
Japan has not been spared – as of yesterday, the country had over 1,000 cases and 36 deaths – but the contagion failed to keep crowds away from the flame’s display.
More than 50,000 people on Saturday queued to see it in person at Sendai station in Miyagi, which was chosen as part of the “Recovery Olympics” to showcase the Tohoku region’s revival after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
Some stayed in a 500m-long line for several hours, local media reported, and many wore face masks as they took pictures with the cherry blossom-shaped cauldron.
“I queued for three hours, but watching the Olympic flame was greatly encouraging,” a 70-year-old woman told broadcaster NHK.
But Games organisers, concerned about the bigger-than-expected gathering, warned viewing could be suspended if the crowd becomes “extremely dense”.
The nationwide torch relay begins on March 26, starting from the J-Village sports complex in Fukushima that was used as a base for workers during the natural disaster nearly nine years ago.
Organisers however, have, been forced to scale back the relay, closing daily ceremonies to the public and urging spectators to “avoid forming crowds” along the route.