Greece officially handed the Olympic flame over to organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics at a ceremony held behind closed doors at the Kalimarmaro Olympic Stadium in Athens while Japan faces growing pressure to cancel the games
The event was held inside the all-marble Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
Today’s ceremony saw Olympic gymnastics champion Lefteris Petrounias run a lap with the flame and Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi light a cauldron from the flame that was lit in Ancient Olympia.
Following the display in the almost empty arena, the flame was then passed to Tokyo representative Naoko Imoto, a swimmer who competed in the 1996 Olympics, by Greek actress Xanthi Georgiou.
Imoto, a UNICEF representative, was reportedly a last-minute appointment as she already lives in Greece and did not have to travel from Japan amid the crisis.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou said in a statement that the ancient Olympic values of “concord, goodwill, brotherhood…are the weapon to use” against the virus.
Last week’s flame lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia was also carried out without spectators.
Addressing Japanese organizers absent from Thursday’s ceremony, Greek Olympic Committee Chairman Spyros Kapralos, said: “Regretfully the COVID-19 outbreak made us take hard decisions and change our initial plans. We deeply regret that you… were not able to travel to Greece and join us here today.”
Authorities decided to cancel the torch relay’s Greek leg after a crowd mobbed Hollywood actor Gerard Butler at a cauldron lighting ceremony in Sparta last week.
COVID-19 has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and caused more than 8,000 deaths in 150 countries and territories.
Greece has reported six confirmed deaths as of Thursday.
Most major sporting events across the world have been rescheduled or scrapped as a result of the pandemic, and doubts are increasingly being expressed about holding the Olympics in its current slot.
But the International Olympic Committee says it is “fully committed” to beginning the Games on July 24 as scheduled.
Top athletes have warned that their training regimens have already been impaired by the pandemic and that they would be taking health risks should the Games go ahead.
Pole vault champion Stefanidi is among prominent athletes to have voiced concern at the IOC’s insistence on holding the Games.
“The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family’s health and public health to train every day?” she tweeted this week. “You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in 4 months.”