Olympic flame arrives in host city after ‘heartbreaking’ fan ban

Saturday, July 24th, 2021 00:00 | By
Former Japanese professional tennis player Shuzo Matsuoka (left) receives the Olympics flame to his Olympic torch during the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame at Machida Shibahiro, on the first day of the torch relay in the city of Machida in western Tokyo on July 9, 2021. Photo/AFP

The Olympic flame arrived in Tokyo on Friday with just two weeks until the Games open, as athletes and fans mourned a “heartbreaking” decision to bar spectators from almost all venues over the virus.

In a taste of what is to come for thousands of athletes who will compete at the pandemic-postponed Games, the public was kept away from the arrival of the flame and a welcoming ceremony was attended only by the media and officials.

As the final countdown to the July 23 opening ceremony begins, the mood is far from the usual festive Olympic spirit.

Tokyo will be under a virus state of emergency from Sunday until August 22, putting a further dampener on an already unusual Olympics.

The measures, which mostly limit alcohol sales, restaurant opening hours and crowd sizes, come as infections rise in the capital and with authorities concerned about the spread of the Delta variant.

Given the decision, organisers said 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”.

In Tokyo, Governor Yuriko Koike received the Olympic flame in a lantern at a ceremony in an empty stadium.

The nationwide torch relay was supposed to stoke excitement about the Games, but almost half the legs have been taken off public roads or otherwise altered because of virus concerns.

Despite the disruptions, 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 Tokyo.

On Thursday night, Koike told reporters she felt “heartbreaking grief” about the decision to bar fans, but organisers said they had no choice given the rise in infections and new emergency measures.

More on Sports