ANCIENT OLYMPIA, GREECE (Reuters) - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics torch relay got under way on Thursday when the flame was lit by the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia in a scaled-down ceremony overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Actress Xanthi Georgiou, in the role of high priestess, used a parabolic mirror at the site of the ancient Greek Olympics to ignite the torch, before handing it to Greek Olympic shooting champion Anna Korakaki, the first woman to ever launch an Olympic relay.
Korakaki subsequently lit the torch of Japanese runner Mizuki Noguchi, the 2004 Olympic marathon champion. The torch will be handed over to Tokyo Games organizers in Athens on March 19 after a seven-day relay in Greece.
Tokyo Games organizers as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have insisted the Games will go ahead as planned on July 24- Aug. 9, amid mounting speculation that they could be canceled or postponed as the virus spreads rapidly across the globe.
“Nineteen weeks before the opening ceremony of the games we are strengthened in our commitment by many ... organizations around the world taking significant measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.
“The Tokyo Games are delivered by an all-star, all-Japan team with outstanding support and cooperation on all levels of government,” he told a small crowd of invited guest on a sun-drenched morning inside the ancient stadium, nestled in the western Peloponnese.
The ceremony was the first since 1984 to be held without spectators on the grassy slopes of the stadium, and only a few dozen accredited officials were allowed to watch the lighting at the nearby Temple of Hera.
The World Health Organization (WHO) described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic for the first time, prompting more countries to announce drastic measures.
U.S. President Donald Trump suspended travel from Europe, except for the UK, for 30 days starting Friday, and hard-hit Italy tightened its lockdown.
As of Wednesday, Japan had 620 cases and 15 deaths, excluding people on a cruise ship that was quarantined near Yokohama last month, according to the health ministry. Experts say the tally may be deceptively low due to the limited number of tests in Japan compared with many other countries.
Tokyo Games chief Yoshiro Mori has called any talk of postponement “outrageous”, while on Thursday Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she believed cancellation was not an option, although she acknowledged that the pandemic label would affect future discussions.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky