Little-known swimmer to receive Tokyo 2020 flame amid coronavirus chaos

TOKYO (Reuters) - Little-known retired swimmer Naoko Imoto will be a last-minute stand-in to receive the Olympic flame during a scaled back handover in Athens on Thursday, Tokyo 2020 organizers said.

The Tokyo 2020 team had contacted Imoto, who lives in Greece, only hours before making the announcement on Wednesday evening in the Japanese capital.

Due to coronavirus concerns and travel restrictions placed on flying in and out of Europe, Tokyo 2020 had announced on Tuesday they would not be sending a delegation to Athens to receive the Olympic flame, as is customary for a host city.

Instead, they said, the Japanese ambassador to Greece would receive the flame on their behalf during a ceremony set to take place in an empty stadium.

Just 24 hours later, however, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto announced that Imoto, who was part of the Japanese team that competed in the 800 meters freestyle relay at the 1996 Atlanta Games, would take the flame.

Muto said the decision came following discussions with the International Olympic Committee and the Hellenic Olympic Committee.

“It was yesterday when we decided that we felt a Japanese person was necessary to undertake this role, during the three-party meeting. So, it has been one day (since the decision was taken),” Muto told a briefing in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Still, it had remained a challenge for organizers to find a suitable Japanese person, already living in Greece and so not subject to travel restrictions, at short notice.

Fortunately, Imoto is working in Greece for UNICEF and, once she had checked her schedule, the 43-year-old accepted the honor.

Imoto had not been involved in any of the original plans for the handover ceremony.

“We also needed to confirm that her schedule had availability and she mentioned that she was available,” said Muto.

“She had a very positive reaction but all this happened just two or three hours ago... We believe it was a great decision, given the limited time of one day.”

The ceremony is due to take place at 1130 local time (0930 GMT) on Thursday at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

The flame will then be transported by plane back to Japan, without Imoto who is not allowed to leave Greece due to the coronavirus outbreak, where it will arrive for another pared-down ceremony at Japan’s military Matushima Airbase on Friday.

Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Ossian Shine and Ken Ferris